Friday, January 31, 2020

Bush's Drug War in Bolivia

Allan Gillies, "Contesting the ‘War on Drugs’ in the Andes: US–Bolivian Relations of Power and Control (1989–93)," Journal of Latin American Studies (first view).


The implementation of President George H. W. Bush's 1989 Andean Initiative brought to the fore competing US and Bolivian agendas. While US embassy officials sought to exert control in pursuit of militarised policies, the Bolivian government's ambivalence towards the coca-cocaine economy underpinned opposition to the ‘Colombianisation’ of the country. This article deconstructs prevailing top-down, US-centric analyses of the drug war in Latin America to examine how US power was exercised and resisted in the Bolivian case. Advancing a more historically grounded understanding of the development of the US drug war in Latin America, it reveals the fluidity of US–Bolivian power relations, the contested nature of counter-drug policy at the country level, and the instrumentalisation of the ‘war on drugs’ in distinct US and Bolivian agendas.
This article continues a growing and welcome trend of moving away from U.S.-centric views that focus largely (or only) on imbalance of power, in this case what Gillies refers to as "drug fetishism" (p. 6). He does this through interviews a with a number of key figures in both countries.

What this means in practice is Bolivian governments who argued openly for acknowledging that drug dollars kept the economy stabilize. More broadly, they used the drug war as leverage for other economic support. For them, the U.S. was often more of a threat to stability than coca or cocaine was.

Further, Bolivian governments at the time were keenly aware that they were in an era of democratization that they wanted to protect. U.S. policy worked against it by alienating people and threatening fragile local economies. U.S. Ambassadors routinely bullied and ordered Bolivian presidents to do what they wanted. Here is one such example about Robert Gelbard:
I called the President and I told him [that] I really needed to talk to him about further corruption problems. He invited me over to his house, we sat down and went through a bottle and a half of Scotch whisky. I remember – my wife remembers – I stumbled home, and I fell into bed saying, ‘God, what I do for my country!’ He agreed to get rid of them (p. 22).

Later he would also rant about a Bolivian decree passed while he was out of the country, saying it should never have been passed with U.S. consultation (p. 25).

The point here is that the Bolivians resisted in many ways, so although power asymmetry is certainly important, it should not be taken to mean the governments were caving.

Since Evo Morales' ouster is so recent, the article can't take it into consideration. But I wonder how much resistance is occurring under Jeanine Añez, who publicly at least seems in lockstep with the Trump administration.


Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Immigrants at the El Paso Border

Check out WOLA's podcast, where Lisette Alvarez interviews Adam Isacson about his trip to the U.S.-Mexico border. Plenty of food for thought, much of which does not tend to reach the mainstream media.

1. When so many people want to be caught for asylum, the wall is moot.

2. Border Patrol agents don't want resources spent on walls in the desert, where people cross with no problem even with a wall. They want more people to help process families.

3. Migrants forced to stay in Mexico are being kidnapped for ransom in large numbers.

4. Mexican organized crime controls the border, so guardsmen have little impact.

5. AMLO is just as cruel as any other past president with immigrants. Ideology doesn't matter.

6. Cuban migrants are especially targeted because of the perception of their relatives' resources.

7. Once the immigrant suffering is pushed into Mexico (with Remain in Mexico) rather than the U.S., it disappears from almost everyone's view in the U.S.

Go listen to the whole thing.

And incidentally, Adam is typically measured but clearly pissed off about all the callous treatment of suffering. He doesn't use the phrase "cruelty is the point" but it hangs over everything.


Monday, January 27, 2020

The Basics of U.S. and Russia in Venezuela

The Wall Street Journal takes a look at how Russia outmaneuvers the United States in Venezuela.

Here are the basics:

U.S.: Withdraw your support from Maduro.
Russia: No.

U.S.: Well, we're pretty sure Russia won't do much.
Russia: We're going to encourage everyone to evade U.S. sanctions.

U.S.: You'd better not evade sanctions.
Russia: Whatever.

U.S.: Maduro will fall soon.
Russia: We're going to prop him up so he won't.

U.S.: We have lots of options.
Russia: Whatever.


Saturday, January 25, 2020

Another Bad Venezuela Take

James Stavridis has a bold and mostly bad take on Venezuela. Maduro, he says, is about to fall. Juan Guaidó, he says, has made major strides (I don't think I've seen anyone else make this claim). China and India are getting lukewarm (he does not mention Russia or Cuba, problematic omissions). And...well, that's it.

Oh wait, there is also token Spanish.

But it is “la hora de la verdad” for a unified regional approach, a push for humanitarian relief, and a carefully graduated ladder of economic punishments and inducements.
In other words, he says nothing new but allows it to lead him to the conclusion that "la hora de la verdad" is here, with no evidence for the "hora."

None of us know what going on inside the government, especially with the armed forces. But claims about imminent collapse have, like with Cuba during the Special Period, come on a regular basis, just never with new information. Look how bad things are! That means he's on the ropes. Well, maybe, but you can be on the ropes for decades.


Friday, January 24, 2020

Latin America in the Campaign

Not long ago, the State Department said Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelans was irrelevant because they were not being deported anyway. That is simply a lie. Now Democrats in Florida are taking this issue into the campaign season. That's a smart political move.
As Republicans met Thursday in the state where President Donald Trump finds his strongest Hispanic support, Democrats jeered his administration's detentions and deportations of migrants who've fled Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. 
"We need a good immigration policy. We need to stop these deportations. People are being deported who have a right to be here under the law," Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fla., said Thursday, adding: "They need more judges. They need more lawyers. People who are being deported, many of them don't have lawyers."
A lot of people are being deported, with thousands more in the backlog.
So far this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1 and ends Sept. 30, 2,060 Cubans have been ordered deported, as well as 1,031 Nicaraguans and 599 Venezuelans.
This is where support for Trump gets weird. He gets credit from conservative Latinos for his hardline stance against the three countries, but the actual policies he chooses have an entirely negative impact on the people on those countries. More specifically, he does what he can to strangle economies and then run away from the responsibility of helping the people fleeing the strangle.

Conservative Latinos may like his anti-socialist rhetoric and conservative social stances, but it makes sense for Democrats to remind voters constantly of the human cost of the administration's Latin America policies. As is often the case, demography will matter. Younger Cubans don't have the same views as their older counterparts, for example.

Democratic candidates, with the exception of Bernie Sanders, have been vocal in opposition of the Maduro government but more receptive of Venezuelan refugees. That's a message they need to repeat. I don't hear them talk so much--if at all--about Cuba, where Trump is even limiting remittances. They need to do so, and to highlight when the administration just lies about the effects of its policies.


Thursday, January 23, 2020

Who Replaces Cuban Doctors?

The Trump administration wants Latin American governments to expel Cuban doctors. Now, the program is indeed terrible in a number of ways. The doctors themselves are not treated well and, as the article points out, leave their families behind so they won't defect. The fact that they want to defect in the first place tells you something.

But here's the problem that gets far too little attention. Those doctors are providing important services to the poor and they may not be replaced. Brazil famously kicked Cuban doctors out and could not fill the vacancies. Some who did fill them quit quickly. Ecuador just expelled them in November 2019, as did Bolivia. El Salvador did so in April, though the number was quite small. Did those governments replace those doctors? There is reason to believe they did not.

If the United States insists the doctors leave, U.S. policy should include some means of replacing them so there is not simply a vacuum. The U.S., perhaps in conjunction with international organizations, should fund medical training programs and incentivize trained medical professionals to work in areas that need it (Dr. Fleischman in the show Northern Exposure suddenly came to mind). But let's not pretend that the doctors are somehow there for show as a way for Cuba to project soft power. They do serve a political purpose, of course, but they are helping people who won't get help otherwise.


Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Declaring Hezbollah a Terrorist Threat in Latin America

Three Latin American countries in particular want something from the United States.

--The Colombian government wants recognition that its fighting coca cultivation sufficiently, which the Trump administration has questioned.

--The Honduran government wants recognition for its acceptance of migrants seeking asylum in the United States and continued opposition to combating corruption (correct, opposition to combating it).

--The Guatemalan government wants the same as Honduras.

Given how unpredictable Trump is, there is no way to know exactly how to secure these things. Directly and publicly doing something Trump likes, especially if it gets on to Fox News when he's watching it, is one potential way.

Labeling Hezbollah a terrorist organization fits this model. Mike Pompeo applauded these three countries for doing so. I doubt they are thinking a whole lot about Hezbollah, as their problems are much bigger and complex than that, but this is an entirely cost-free way of pushing into Trump's good graces. Colombia just adopted the entire U.S. list. Juan Orlando Hernández made his announcement directly after a meeting on immigration with the acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf.

Especially with Central America, the administration is essentially pummeling them into submission.


Friday, January 17, 2020

RIP Tom Davies

Two years ago I posted about how one of the professors from my MA program at San Diego State University (Charles Andrain) had died. I just recently got an email from someone who got their MA earlier than me who ran across my post. That prompted me to reach out to people at SDSU I still know, at which point I found out that Tom Davies died in February 2019, which I hadn't known. He was only 78.

Tom was a historian of Latin America and given my own inclination toward political history became a natural fit for my MA thesis (on U.S. recognition policy). Tom had a big personality. As one faculty member put it in a memorial:

When he left, our universe was poorer--and it stayed that way. Now, we are all poorer for having lost him, but forever enriched by the example he set for living life richly and deliciously.
I took one of Tom's classes (I don't remember exactly but I think it was on indigenous groups in Latin America) and met with him regularly about my thesis. He was an early riser and so I often met in his office on the ground floor of Storm Hall somewhere about 7:30 am. I can clearly hear his deep, resonant voice in my head.

He was effusive and warm. One of my enduring memories is being at his house for a Latin American Studies party, where he walked around in his guayabera (I never saw him in anything else) with a big bird on his shoulder, and smoking Marlboro reds (remember this was almost 30 years ago!) while talking to everyone. What I didn't know at the time was that he also served as expert witness for hundreds of asylum cases, especially for LGBTQ immigrants. Later as I finished my dissertation, I was an adjunct at SDSU for three semesters (filling in for my MA advisor and longtime mentor Brian Loveman while he had a grant) and was on the market. I got a phone interview at a university in Nebraska and since Tom was from there he took me to lunch (Por Favor in La Mesa, for some reason I remember this) to talk about it.

Really just a tremendous person. I hadn't seen him in years but feel sad that he's not still with us.

With both Charles and Tom, it is a reminder that even in the midst of our daily grinds, we can make lifelong and lasting impressions and serve as models if we do our mentoring well. It's funny for me to think that I am now just about the same age as all my professors were when I was in the MA program.


Chileans Are Not Happy and the Polls Show It

A new poll is out from Centro de Estudios Públicos (CEP) in Chile. Chileans are not positive about the economy, but not entirely negative either. They used to trust the military and the police, but no more. Now they don't trust much of anything (the media gets the highest, but not terribly high). 72% have no stated political identification, the highest ever. A majority supported the October 2019 protests, but not an overwhelming majority (55%). And no, they don't think the protests were foreign-inspired. 67% support writing a new constitution. Sebastián Piñera has a 6% approval rate and an 82% disapproval, which might be the worst I have ever seen in Latin America.

What you see in the numbers is that Chileans see their country in a rut, not stagnant but not improving. They see the new constitution as a way to improve things a bit at least.

The good news is that the belief in democracy over authoritarianism is the highest it's ever been.

Especially these days, this is something we should celebrate and not take for granted.


State Department's Latin America Successes

The State Department posted an interview with a senior official about its 2019 success in the western hemisphere. It was a "historic period of cooperation throughout the Western Hemisphere." It claimed the following as successes:

--the Bolivian coup: "a major success for democracy in Bolivia."
--increased sanctions on Cuba: "The United States will cut off Cuba’s remaining sources of revenue."
--forcing asylum seekers to dangerous places to apply: "This all promises to thwart human smugglers."
--Invoking the Rio Treaty: "that’s kicking in."

Then the House Foreign Affairs Committee tweeted this:

That's hard to argue with.

As an aside, the end of the interview includes a infuriating reference to TPS for Venezuelans. See the discussion on Twitter.


Thursday, January 16, 2020

Reality & Rhetoric in Colombia

President Ivan Duque on Colombian security:

“Our goal is to keep deepening our security agenda in rural areas,” Duque said. “Our responsibility is first to dissuade and at the same time break up, confront and make an example of these criminal structures via sentencing.” 
“I think we are on a good path - I don’t want to be triumphalist or euphoric. We are on a good path, we have been able to take very important steps in these 17 months.”
The United Nations on Colombian security:
 "We are deeply troubled by the staggering number of human rights defenders killed in Colombia during 2019," agency spokeswoman Maria Hurtado said Tuesday. 
There were 107 activists killed in Colombia last year, she said, with 13 other cases under investigation that could bring the total to 120. The year before, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights confirmed 115 killings of human rights activists. 
"This terrible trend is showing no let-up in 2020, with at least 10 human rights defenders already reportedly killed during the first 13 days of January," Hurtado said at a briefing in Geneva, Switzerland. 
"The vicious and endemic cycle of violence and impunity must stop," she said. "Victims and their families have a right to justice, truth and reparations."
Not exactly the same message. The Colombian government's "good path" is not working terribly well. As the Washington Office on Latin America pointed out in December with regard to the peace accords:
President Iván Duque’s administration has defunded and, in some cases, derailed key aspects of the accords, such as the transitional justice mechanisms that are key to guaranteeing justice and non-repetition of war crimes. Demobilized fighters have not received the promised support and resources to help them reintegrate into mainstream society; nor has the government followed through on promises to support small farmers and provide viable alternatives to growing illicit-use crops. 
Most concerningly, violence is on the rise, with human rights defenders, environmental activists, and land rights claimants facing threats, attacks, and killings. Many of those targeted are from Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities; impunity for these threats and killings remains the norm. 
People in cities can feel safer but not in the countryside. This is the eternal problem if "security" is defined entirely in militarized terms.


Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Latin America Does Not Like Trump Policies

The Pew Research Center has some numbers of global views of Trump policies. The Latin American countries included are Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. As you might guess, people in those countries strongly dislike his tariffs. They also strongly dislike his climate policies. They really hate his border wall. They dislike his immigration policy. Oh, and they all dislike his Iran policy and his North Korea policy.

The fact is that a Trump supporter and opponent can look at the same thing and come to radically different conclusions. The supporter would likely assert that the U.S. was a punching bag before, and now people are upset when the U.S. finally stands up for itself. Who cares if foreigners don't like it? The opponent, naturally, would say that Trump is destroying the image and credibility of the U.S., thus making it harder to get anything productive done.

One thing we do know is that Trump will continue on the same path with every single one of those policies. Trump supporters will see this as a president finally doing what's right against globalists. The fact that the foreigners dislike his policies means he's doing the right thing.


Monday, January 13, 2020

Flannery's Searching For Modern Mexico

I enjoyed Nathaniel Parish Flannery's Searching for Modern Mexico: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Global Economy (2019). The bulk of the book is really about how rural Mexico is doing on the front lines of the global economy. And for the entire book, if you're a small business owner, how can you survive? This means a varying combination of opportunity, dislocation, structural constraints, and violence.

The first chapters look at rural Mexico: coffee in Chiapas, mezcal in Oaxaca, and avocado in Michoacán. Flannery digs deep into the stories of specific people, their businesses, and the regional context, which often includes fear. Not surprisingly, Michoacán is the most extreme, with local gunmen creating a fragile "peace" by force against cartels. But there is also economic uncertainty based on the fact that local entrepreneurs see how the Mexican government has done nothing to help them integrate into the global economy. There is a lot of demand for these products in the U.S., but especially in Chiapas, farmers are scattered and don't know how to get government assistance, either economic or technical.

The Mexican state is absent, more at least mostly so. It's not helping the southern part of the country develop economically and it's not providing anywhere close to adequate security despite claiming to, so informality reigns. Further, corruption becomes the norm.

The avocado chapter reminded me of the Mexico trip I took in 9th grade (in the mid-1980s) that included visiting Uruapan, in Michoacán. Now if you do a news search for Uruapan you get story after story about grisly murders, and U.S. schools are not sending their kids there.

Then he shifts to beer in the larger cities of Guadalajara and Tijuana, a conscious choice to highlight the inequalities that still characterize Mexico. He briefly adds the taco vendors that feed the maquila industry to show the two-tiered nature of the economy. This is where we see that the Mexican state is also failing to facilitate financing, as the major banks are owned by billionaires and are not interested in funding entrepreneurs. Those billionaires also control the market, so that Oxxo convenience stores (which are everywhere) and supermarket chains have exclusive contracts with giant beer companies that shut out local producers. Monopolies strangle the economy.

Flannery shows the challenges all these entrepreneurs face and it would be really interesting to follow up in 5-10 years. Could they advance in the ways they hoped? Did structural conditions wear them out? In short, how much can the Mexican government do for them?


Biden Gets Confused About South America

Democratic candidates have too little intelligent to say about Latin America. The Des Moines Register editorial board interviewed Joe Biden in late December, and a few days ago the Washington  Examiner gleefully picked up his errors. They only play 38 seconds but here is the entire video. The relevant part is right at the end (1:08 out of 1:11). It's just a bit longer than their snippet.

He starts with a somewhat odd made-up story of a fictional dad in Guadalajara, then shifts by asking "what are we doing?" in Venezuela, then pivots illogically to "I'm the guy" who put together Plan Colombia," which "straightened that government out for a long while." Now back to Venezuela, where "millions" of people are "crossing the border" into...Bolivia. And destabilizing Bolivia. They had already been destabilizing the Amazon. He criticizes Trump for having his "thumb in his ear" and instead the U.S. needs "to organize the hemisphere." He asks why populist movements occur but does not answer the question, saying only the U.S. needs to "lead."

What we can take from this is that for all his experience with Latin America, he can't keep things straight. More importantly, his overall view is that U.S. leadership includes use of force. To be fair, the Guadalajara thing is intended in its odd way to demonstrate that the U.S. needs to help promote prosperity and fight corruption in Latin America, which I agree with. But then suddenly inserting Plan Colombia is discordant, a shift to military responses. That's what bothered me about Pete Buttigieg as well, when last November he mentioned the possibility of sending troops to Mexico. Let's stop with that mindsight already.


Friday, January 10, 2020

U.S. Occupation of Cuba and Iraq

Once the U.S. occupies a country, it is not so easy to get it to leave.

“At this time, any delegation sent to Iraq would be dedicated to discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership — not to discuss troop withdrawal, but our right, appropriate force posture in the Middle East,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement. 
Ortagus stressed that “America is a force for good in the Middle East” and that the purpose of the U.S. military presence in Iraq is “to continue the fight” against the Islamic State. She did not reference Iraq’s request.
 U.S. State Department in 1906 regarding Cuba:
I am much distressed by the events which have occurred since we left the United States to attend the conference at Rio, but I do not think there is just reason for the friends of Cuba to despair of her liberty, her independence, or her success in self-government. You will recall that the provision of the Cuban constitution and the treaty, under which the United States is now acting, provides the right “to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence,” and you will perceive in the terms of Secretary Taft’s proclamation that such is the purpose of the Government of the United States.
And as always, some in the occupied country benefit and want the U.S. to stay, while many others vocally do not. Cuba had to wait many years before the U.S. gave up its self-ordained right to send troops whenever it wanted, and even then its interference was such that it led to revolution.


Venezuela in the 2020 Campaign

Journalist Frida Ghitis writes at World Politics Review that Venezuela will be be prominent in the 2020 campaign.

Venezuela left the front pages of American newspapers months ago. Most Americans are not particularly interested in the plight of yet another country thousands of miles away. But the crisis’ convergence with U.S. politics in an election year all but guarantees that Venezuela will reappear on American foreign policy and political radars in 2020.
The reason, of course, is that this matters to Venezuelan-Americans and Cuban-Americans in Florida. Logically this makes sense, but I am still wrestling with the counter-arguments.

First, Trump has a foreign policy history of talking tough and declaring victory based on the talk. He does not necessarily need a change of government in Venezuela to achieve this. He can point to all his sanctions. You can just hear him saying how soft Obama was and how these are the toughest sanctions of any country in history.

Second, it is not clear to me whether Mike Pompeo's announced strategy of negotiated elections gives Trump the resounding win he wants. Most importantly, it will almost certainly involve amnesties or some other sort of concessions that Florida hardliners will not like. That sort of process would be slow and messy.

Third, Cuban-Americans outnumber Venezuelan-Americans by a lot, and Trump famously reversed Obama's diplomatic thaw in Cuba. Therefore hardliners may well already be decided. Trump may not need anything more than talk with Venezuela to keep those votes.

Fourth, Democrats don't have anything better to offer. I have yet to hear anything from any candidate that is different from what's already happening now. Except for Bernie, who shies away from talking about Venezuela at all, there is just vague tough talk.

But let's see.


Thursday, January 09, 2020

U.S. Proposes Negotiated Elections in Venezuela

After so many months of bluster and threats, the Trump administration (or at least the State Department) today issued a very reasonable proposal to hold elections in Venezuela. It allows anyone to run.

A few things come to mind:

First, it requires an interim government that is negotiated and "broadly acceptable." What happens to members of the current government is left unmentioned in this particular document, and that is obviously a major issue.

Second, the Bolivian case requires us to ask what powers the interim government will have. In Bolivia the interim government is upending foreign policy and pursuing the ousted president.

Third, and related to #2, will an interim government have U.S. sanctions lifted? I would assume so, and that would facilitate needed revenue in the short-term before some new government deals with the oil industry disaster.

Fourth, this has Mike Pompeo's stamp of approval, but what about Trump? Perhaps he cares little enough about Venezuela that he is actually willing to delegate rather than blowing it out of the water with an ill-timed tweet. That came up over and over with regard to immigration, but of course he cares about that a lot more.

Fifth, is the U.S. talking to Russia about this? That does require Trump himself.

Despite the uncertainty, it is entirely good for the U.S. to put negotiated elections front and center in Venezuela policy.


Regional Integration and the Cuba Thaw

John de Bhal, "Never Thaw that coming! Latin American regional integration and the US–Cuba Thaw," Third World Quarterly 40, 5 (2019): 855-869.

Abstract (gated):

Existing accounts of the US–Cuba Thaw correctly identify the decisiveness of Latin American states in pushing the 2014 change in US policy towards Cuba. Problematically, however, these accounts overlook a range of regional integration projects pursued by Latin American states that prove pivotal in ascertaining the central dynamics of the region in shaping the Thaw. This article argues that these regional integration projects are imperative to understanding how Latin American states were able to alter US policy towards Cuba, for three reasons. First, these initiatives, and Cuba’s role in these projects, are central to understanding why Cuba came to be a unanimously ‘regional’ issue for Latin American states of all political persuasions; second, the challenges to US dominance in the region provided by these integration projects were ultimately what gave Latin American states their teeth in pushing the Obama administration to reconsider its policy towards Cuba; and third, a consideration of this broader regional context more thoroughly illustrates the strategic nature of the change in policy towards Cuba as an attempt by the US to salvage its ability to influence regional affairs in response to these integration initiatives that excluded it from the region’s architecture.

The idea here is that regional integration (even if partial and imperfect) forced the Cuba issue. Most of Latin America had rejected the U.S. stance toward Cuba for years, but the integration efforts made it clearer that regularized Cuba relations were a precondition to greater U.S. influence.

It would be interesting to use this argument as a stepping stone to understand the transitory nature of the thaw. To have an impact, the U.S. government has to define influence in terms of cooperation. The Obama administration was sandwiched between two governments that viewed influence more in terms of power projection, with Trump obviously at the extreme in that regard.


Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Trump, Putin, and Venezuela

I tend to disagree with the Washington Post Editorial Board about Venezuela, as it is too hawkish for my taste. However, I do agree with their assessment yesterday:
With Moscow behind him, Mr. Maduro will likely seek to stage new, rigged elections for the National Assembly, using as cover former opposition legislators the regime has bought with reported payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The regime of Vladimir Putin will be rewarded with a new client state in the Western hemisphere, along with nearly exclusive access to some of the world’s largest oil reserves. 
This would be a stinging defeat for President Trump, who has made the restoration of democracy in Venezuela one of his signature goals. How to prevent such a defeat? Military action, which Mr. Trump has sometimes hinted at, is not a realistic option. But Mr. Trump could impose a cost on Russia for its meddling, such as by increasing sanctions on the state oil company Rosneft for its Venezuelan oil trafficking. The coming months may tell whether Mr. Trump values regime change in Venezuela more than his affinity for Mr. Putin.
Well, mostly agree. I don't think it's accurate to say democratization is a "signature goal" for Trump. 

But this highlights an important point about U.S. foreign policy options. If invasion has truly been eliminated, what else is there besides more sanctions? The answer is pressure on Russia, and Trump's consistent pattern of accepting Putin's view of international affairs offers little optimism.

If you recall from back in May 2019:
“I had a very good talk with President Putin — probably over an hour,” Trump began. “And we talked about many things. Venezuela was one of the topics. And he is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela, other than he’d like to see something positive happen for Venezuela. And I feel the same way. We want to get some humanitarian aid."
Putin lied to him and he repeated the obvious lie uncritically. Since then, Russia has rapidly deepened its relationship with Venezuela. It is, as TeleSur puts it, two allies against U.S. regional hegemony.

It means Putin is now indispensable to the Maduro government. At a minimum, perhaps the international community could convince Russia to allow free and fair elections.


AMLO is Really Popular

Mexico's El Financiero reports their December poll showing AMLO as still highly popular. His approval is at 72%, with disapproval at only 27%, the lowest in months. Mexicans like his leadership, and think he's honest and capable. In particular, they like his work on public security and education.

This poll includes a great question I've never seen before, which asks people to rate AMLO according to baseball terms. A majority believe he is a single or a home run.

This is not what you'd expect reading U.S. accounts of his presidency. He is a populist opportunist and Mexico "deserves better." The U.S. left is skeptical of him. The U.S. right is skeptical of him. Maybe he's a potential threat to democracy. Financial analysts are skeptical of him.

The point is here is that framing matters. Stories in the U.S. would strongly suggest an unpopular president who displeases everyone. If they mention his popularity, it is almost grudgingly. Almost a year I asked whether AMLO's cautious foreign policy would satisfy Mexican public opinion, figuring it wouldn't, but the answer is obviously yes.


Monday, January 06, 2020

Latin American Response to Venezuelan Authoritarianism

Venezuela spiraled further with yesterday's events, where the Maduro government forced a leadership vote and claimed victory while blocking Juan Guaidó and others, who then held a separate vote. It was almost stereotypically authoritarian. If you're going to lose a vote, then don't allow it to happen. Looking at the regional response, you can take the more optimistic approach or the more pessimistic one.

The glass half full response:

A lot of governments responded, including some--like Argentina and Mexico--that lean more to the left. Consensus appears to be growing, though a bit of that is Evo Morales' ouster.

The Lima Group issued a statement condemning it and other things, such as human rights abuses (as well as welcoming the Bolivian coup government to its ranks). Some presidents made statements themselves. Lenín Moreno strongly criticized the move. The Argentine foreign minister condemned it. Mexico's foreign ministry urged the Maduro government to allow real leadership elections. Incidentally, Evo Morales carefully kept his Twitter account silent on the issue.

The glass half empty response:

The response, while broad, was tepid. There are calls for Maduro to allow democracy and for the international community to come together somehow, but no response goes anywhere close to proposing collective action. The U.S. does nothing but impose sanctions, which hurts Venezuelans while Maduro finds alternate means of funding the regime. The constant refrain is that there are 50 countries that recognize Guaidó, but that is not changing anything on the ground.


Friday, January 03, 2020

Iran Retaliation in Latin America?

In the aftermath of Trump assassinating Qassem Soleimani, people are already speculating about potential repercussions in Latin America. Or, as one Middle Eastern official put it:

It could be targets in Africa, it could be in Latin America, it could be in the Gulf, it could be anything,” the official said. “I don’t think they’re going to take the assassination of one of their key guys and just turn the other cheek.”
My question is what form this would take that would serve as retaliation. Iran's modus operandi in Latin America has been only indirectly anti-U.S. Most prominently, it has involved terrorist attacks in Argentina, money laundering, and overall a mild propaganda win in places like Venezuela where it can claim presence in the U.S. backyard.

Even those who have argued for years that Iran posed a significant threat in the region, such as Douglas Farah, write things like:
Of the three external actors, Iran’s revolutionary government has the smallest footprint in Latin America of the three countries and the most opaque agenda. Unlike Russia and China, Iran offers neither economic nor military support, but instead focuses on a narrower set of state and non-state actors through limited political outreach and illicit activities meant to further Iran’s national interest and nuclear program. That influence diminished with the death of former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and the end of the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, but may increase again contingent upon current developments.
So Iran's presence in Latin America exists, but is minimal, so what would it or could it even target? Attacking another Latin America country would not really serve as retaliation against the United States, and would push countries in the region to condemn it. So that doesn't seem very desirable.

Or it could directly attack U.S. citizens in Latin America. Certainly possible, but also risky, and again it entails regional condemnation. Or maybe cyberattacks that are harder to trace, but which affect U.S. trade in Latin America or other activities and serve as a reminder of Iran's reach.

It could just be that be I lack imagination, but for many years I and many others have argued that Iran's threat to Latin America (and to the U.S. through Latin America) has been grossly exaggerated, and therefore we should be alert but not alarmed. I don't see any reason right now to change that view.

Update: Chris Sabatini makes a similar argument in a Miami Herald op-ed.


Thursday, January 02, 2020

U.S. Support For Latin American Democracy

Tracy Wilkinson and Patrick J. McDonnell write at The Los Angeles Times that the Trump administration supports democracy depending on who is in power. They start by comparing Honduras and Bolivia:

But when it came to the U.S. response in each place, the Trump administration appeared less concerned about fraud than another question: Was the leader in question friend or foe?
This is true, but it is also universally true for the entire history of the United States.* I mean, I guess it bears repeating if people actually think the U.S. has a generally applicable policy. You can find these dyads everywhere and they are ideological. Generally it is "country perceived as leftist and anti-American" versus "country perceived as conservative and pro-American."

"Bad" presidents are manipulating the system and need to be brought to justice. "Good" presidents are fighting off internal subversion. You can even get dyads of the same person. The 1992 attempted coup in Venezuela was bad but the briefly successful coup in 2002 was good. In the former, Hugo Chávez was subverting the democratic order. In the latter, he deserved what he got because he wasn't responding to the opposition. In the 1980s, Manuel Noriega was a good guy while Daniel Ortega was the bad guy. The U.S. talked a lot about democracy while supporting the Brazilian dictatorship and attacking the Chilean democracy. It might even be a good class exercise to come up with more such groupings.

I certainly don't mean this to excuse Donald Trump, who has screwed up Latin America policy more than I imagined possible. But let's not pretend past presidents were not guilty of this. Self-interest is at the core of U.S. policy always.

* I am sticking with Latin American examples, but elsewhere just start with U.S. support for Saudi Arabia.


Venezuela in 2020

Rafael Osío Cabrices and Raúl Stolk at Caracas Chronicle take a look at the political shift in Venezuela throughout 2019. There are two key takeaways:

First, the Maduro government ditched the chavista revolutionary goals, both at home and abroad, in favor of simply staying in power. Just remaining in power is winning. That includes dollarization. They note Russia's gradual takeover of the Venezuela oil industry, and I would add this news story about how Venezuela is actually increasing its oil production as a result.

Second, the international response has shifted mostly to managing refugees. The Trump administration was belligerent in early 2019 and that has evaporated. The strategies of providing exit ramps and convincing the military to force out Maduro failed, and at least publicly are not being replaced with anything else. There is no Plan B.

As always, we have to add the caveat that we don't know what's going on inside the regime. But from the outside, maintaining power in 2020 looks much more favorable than it did in 2019.


Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Latin America in 2020

I don't remember another end of year when things look so down for Latin America going forward.  These things are not new, but it's striking to put them all together, even in brief.

There's mostly sluggish economic growth:

CEPAL predicts that Latin American economic growth will be only 1.3% in 2020. In all, 23 of 33 will experience contraction versus 2019. The economy will accentuate other political problems.

There is too little political stability:

Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela are the extremes in different ways, with Bolivia and Venezuela facing presidential and legislative elections, respectively, and in circumstances fraught with illegitimacy. Chile teeters as we wait to watch the constitutional process. Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru face various types of political uncertainty, while Brazil is governed by a nutcase. Central America has not improved security and constantly faces punishment from the United States. For all the criticisms of AMLO, Mexico is looking very good by comparison.

The military is more politically active than it's been in many years, restoring a moderator role, and remains a highly respective institution.

And there is too little economic good news, which exacerbates everything.

Trade with the U.S. is uncertain

Trade diversification is a good thing, but uncertainty about tariffs and trade is not. With Trump in office, uncertainty is the norm. Whatever deal you strike might be negated with a tweet.

Corruption is Rampant:

Corruption is not new, but anti-corruption efforts are being thwarted, including by the United States. And that just pisses everyone off more.

The Venezuelan crisis is hurting neighboring countries:

There is no end in sight, though of course we have no way of knowing what's going on at any given time with the military. From the outside, Maduro has successfully hunkered down and gathered sufficient foreign support, with a Russian lifeline.

The Amazon is burning and climate change is causing serious problems

The left and the right prefer the revenue.

Not an optimistic way to start the new year and new decade.


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