Monday, March 30, 2020

Podcasting Latin American Civil-Military Relations

Over at the Washington Office on Latin America podcast, I talked with Adam Isacson about Latin American civil-military relations. I thought we had a nice, if not exactly uplifting, chat.

One point that came up that in my opinion merits more attention is the use of social media. Latest example: when the U.S. imposed sanctions on Nicolás Maduro and others, there was quickly a tweet of army support. It's just an assumed response at this point.

Also, we recorded on Friday afternoon in our respective homes and had a beer as we talked. I'd never had a beer while podcasting and I recommend it.


Saturday, March 28, 2020

NC Republicans Say We Need Mexican Immigrants

Unemployment claims recently hit record levels at both the national and state levels. People need jobs. This would be the time when they would work in agriculture, right? It's steady work and easy to find. Right?


North Carolina conservatives successfully called on the federal government to unfreeze visa restrictions for immigrant workers. There is, in fact, a "labor shortage" at the a time of rapidly rising unemployment. There can be no better proof that there is no "stealing" of jobs going on here. Americans would rather be unemployed than work in agriculture.

Not only that, but immigrants are--as the Republican lawmakers say--an essential part of this country's food supply chain. I would think that would put them in an exalted category, something to be honored. Right?


Thursday, March 26, 2020

Covid-19 and Latin American Multilateralism

Mac Margolis has a thoughtful article on Covid-19 and multilateralism in Latin America. Right now governments are closing their borders precisely at a time when they need to join together to address this common threat. Alone they can't do it effectively. Regional institutions now are so ideology-based that governments move in and out of them, thus rendering them weak.

I agree with his assessment, but he does not mention one serious obstacle: the United States. We are already seeing a problem with Venezuela going to the IMF (which itself is quite amazing) because the U.S. insists only Juan Guaidó can do that. The Trump administration also has opposed UN and OAS efforts to combat corruption in Central America. The "America First" approach is built upon a paranoia of the multilateral institutions that Latin America needs.

Latin America already has a long history of failed attempts at multilateralism and unity. Hugo Chávez's latest version was founded on oil money and ideology and now is in tatters. It's always been an uphill climb, and now it's worse. It's like someone pushing back against Sisyphus, whose already carrying the damned rock.


Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Covid-19 and Latin American Militaries

Long before Covid-19, Latin American militaries were once again taking prominent places in politics. Sometimes this was clearly antithetical to democracy (as in Bolivia and El Salvador) and other times just a mixing of military and police functions (as in Chile) that might have negative long-term impacts.

And now the pandemic has put the military on the front lines and in large numbers. Some recent examples:

Argentina: the army is building hospitals.

Bolivia: on the streets to enforce quarantine.

Brazil: an operations center for soldiers to deal with airports, ports, borders, etc.

Chile: over 20,000 soldiers deployed to enforce curfew.

Ecuador: deployment in Guayas province (not sure if elsewhere) where there have been a lot of cases.

El Salvador: enforcing the quarantine.

Mexico: mobilization of upwards of 250,000 soldiers for a variety of purposes.

Peru: military patrols (and one dead).

Using the military in a time of natural disaster is neither unusual nor, on its face, alarming. A big difference with the current crisis is that the duration. Like it or not, a major military presence in major Latin American cities for months might well become normalized. That's not a healthy combination with presidents--Bukele comes to mind, of course--who have already shown a proclivity for using the military as a political weapon.


Tuesday, March 24, 2020

How Long Can A Crazy President Stay Popular?

Mother Jones, not exactly a fan of Donald Trump, has an article explaining why AMLO is even worse when it comes to responding to the coronavirus. Trump seems to teeter between acceptance and denial, focused as always on whether he is being praised. AMLO is squarely in denial, even as his own executive branch takes actions. For AMLO, "phase 1" of the pandemic actually means "spread it even more!"

“Don’t stop going out—we’re still only in phase one,” López Obrador said. “If you have the means to do it, continue taking your family out to restaurants and diners. That’s what will strengthen the economy.” 
This brings me to a question I've had ever since he took office: how long can he stay popular? Misstep after misstep, combined with total obeisance to Trump, left me convinced that his high approval ratings were going to crash at some point. And yet here he is. The late February numbers clearly showed a decline, with 59% approval and 35% disapproving. Those numbers, of course, do not reflect the intensity of the crisis. But those aren't bad at all. A drop, yes, but keeping up at 70-80% is rare. In Latin America, staying above 50% is practically a miracle.

This is Teflon that even Ronald Reagan would be envious of. I won't even bother predicting what the March numbers will look like. I mean, Trump himself has solid approval for how he's handled the crisis despite a host of bad decisions and contradictions. We live in strange times.

UPDATE: literally minutes after publishing, here is a poll showing 37% approval vs. 45% disapproval for how AMLO is handling the crisis. That is not the same as overall approval--let's see if that crashed or not as a result.


Monday, March 23, 2020

Home For The Semester

Like millions, I am home indefinitely. I am extraordinarily lucky, being salaried and tenured, stocked with food in a home with my favorite people. My job right now is to help keep the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences going--there are both knowns and unknowns in that regard. At the moment, my interactions are through emails, WebEx, and Skype. I am glad for meetings just to remind me that specific days and times still actually exist.

This is tough on faculty and students alike, and I feel terrible for graduating seniors who can't savor their accomplishment as much as they deserve. My own son is a graduating high school senior and he is just seeing the year sort of fizzle out.

The idea that someone in authority is even floating the possibility of 30% unemployment is terrifying. Our national leadership is weak, which is deeply frustrating, though at least the governors are stepping up. We need testing and it's not coming nearly quickly enough, which is also deeply frustrating. People are panic buying, which is bad for everyone. Those without health insurance and the growing number of unemployed are facing eviction and hunger without intervention.

The Latin American response to the crisis transcends ideology, with AMLO and Bolsonaro leading the way in being buffoons in denial on different ends of the spectrum, though at least Brazil's governors are also picking up the slack. People in favelas don't have access to clean water or hand sanitizer, yet their president mocks the whole thing. Nicolás Maduro is taking it seriously, but so many years of incompetence and corruption leave the entire population--not to mention emigrants abroad--terribly vulnerable. There is better leadership elsewhere, like Martín Vizcarra in Peru and others (Boz has some interesting charts on Latin American spread of the virus). But we are learning what can happen when you vote just to "kick the bums out" and then a crisis hits.

In my own small slice of the world, there are positive things to focus on as well. People are trying to help those who can't get out, help local businesses, share tips on online teaching, share info on where to find essential goods (stop buying massive amounts of toilet paper!) and just trying to spread some humor. Sometimes there's not much else you can do.


Saturday, March 21, 2020

Joe McGinniss' The Selling of the President 1968

Trapped in our homes by the coronavirus, now more than ever is a time for reading. It has actually been slower than I anticipated because I've been too tempted to keep up with the constantly changing news. But we need something else to occupy us. As The Police said, "When the world is running down/You make the best of what's still around."

At the last UNC Charlotte library sale, I picked up Joe McGinniss' The Selling of the President 1968. I went through a serious Nixon period in the early 1990s as the anniversary of his resignation neared, and read a ton on him and Watergate, and that interest never went away. This book is a breezily written and entertaining account of how consultants used TV to transform an often unlikable candidate into a winning image, devoid of substance but full of nostalgia. It's also depressing, because you can see how vacuity became a political goal.

As one of the filmmakers hired to do some commercials said, "Nixon has not only developed the use of the platitude, he's raised it to an art form. It's mashed potatoes. It appeals to the lowest common denominator of American taste. It's a farce, a delicious farce, self-deception carried to the nth degree" (115).

Hostility toward the common person was evident. You wanted enough "Negroes" in ads or staged events, but definitely not more than one because you would offend the "Yahoo belt" of the South. And they wondered why they were unwelcome in Harlem. They didn't even want to advertise with college students--it might offend people. Roger Ailes (only 28 at the time) plays a big role and is as offensive as you would expect, with references to "broads" and the like.

Hostility toward the press undergirded the entire effort, precisely as Twitter does now for Donald Trump. The leftist press would never give Nixon a fair shake, so TV gave him the opportunity to do things his way without their filter. More precisely, he could appeal to people's worst instincts without interference.

Overall there was, as one consultant put it, "the basic problem of Nixon's personality" (161). The whole point was to avoid showing the real him. McGinniss closes with the funny irony that Nixon believed that image didn't matter at all.


Thursday, March 12, 2020

Nicaraguan Emigration

We have heard a lot about Venezuelan emigration, but the UNHCR reminds us that the problem is increasing in Nicaragua, for a similar reason: a corrupt and incompetent authoritarian government.
Nearly two years after Nicaragua was plunged into a serious political and social crisis, more than 100,000 people have fled reported persecution and human rights abuses in the country, seeking asylum abroad. 
Even after the initial surge of violence in April 2018 subsided, Nicaraguan students, human rights defenders, journalists and farmers continue to flee their country at an average rate of 4,000 people every month. With no resolution to the internal crisis in sight, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, expects these numbers to grow.
The rapid spread of the coronavirus makes all refugees more vulnerable to illness, with no infrastructure to help them. The majority of Nicaraguans are going to Costa Rica, which can barely handle healthy migrants, much less ones stricken with the virus.

U.S. attention, and the attention of all governments, is elsewhere, so this will get worse.


Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Review of You Never Forget Your First

I read Alexis Coe's recently published You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington. Several things attracted me to it: it was written by a woman, which is rare for Washington biographies; it intentionally looked at his less-great qualities in order to humanize him; and it had an informal tone (for example, with an irreverent epigraph and early on a discussion of the crazy names he gave his dogs). What you end up with is a highly readable and illuminating book that helps us see him as a human being.

Doing so doesn't detract from his obviously critical role in the creation and preservation of the United States. I would say she has great respect for him but not reverence. You can also respect someone while noting the ways in which they are imperfect. Washington was already being put on a pedestal while he lived and we all imbibe that in U.S. schools.

I do feel like the book became more formal/traditional as it went on. She makes the case for calling Mount Vernon a "forced-labor camp" rather than a "plantation" (p. 43) but then uses the word "plantation" many times thereafter. The profane epigraph finds no match elsewhere in the book. At the same time, she pulls no punches about his attitudes toward his slaves or his thin-skinned reactions to political opponents. The latter contributes to our understanding of why he famously stopped after two terms. He was sick of the constant attacks on him by anonymous authors who he generally believed to be Thomas Jefferson and accomplices.

I enjoyed the book which, as Coe herself points out, isn't intended to be a massive brick of 900 pages full of detail, and I recommend it.


Sunday, March 08, 2020


I have just returned from the 2020 meeting of the Southeastern Council of Latin American Studies, which was in Austin. It went really well, with great panels in a cool city. I ate a lot of tacos and did a lot of running on the path along the river. There were people meeting to run almost every morning. My friend and History colleague Steven Hyland at Wingate University is a master at putting it together. It's a welcoming atmosphere, with a lot of opportunities for graduate students and faculty to chat about professional development.

The 2021 meeting will be in New Orleans, so start thinking about it. The exact date is not set but almost certainly in March. You should come.


Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Avocados Are Not Blood Diamonds

Ioan Grillo has an op-ed in The New York Times about Mexican avocados and violence. In short, they are not the new blood diamond.
After covering Mexico’s drug violence since 2001, I think it is extremely misguided to advocate boycotting avocados to fight cartels. When industrious growers are shaken down by gangsters it is crazy to hit them in their wallets again. We need to pressure Mexican security forces to stop extortion, not punish businesses. 
“It’s not a problem limited to one commodity,” said Falko Ernst, senior analyst for Mexico at the international Crisis Group. “A boycott (of avocados) would drag down thousands of hardworking families that have done nothing wrong.”
I got the same vibe from Nathaniel Flannery's book on Mexico as well, which I reviewed in January. Growers are trying to figure out ways to protect themselves and work hard to make their avocados fit the strict requirements of the United States government. Choosing not to buy their product will hurt them badly and destroy local economies.

He ends by saying a more important issue is stemming the flow of U.S. guns into Mexico. But I would add exploring ways to help Mexico build institutional capacity. A monstrously huge task, obviously, but at least one that does not attack farmers.


Tuesday, March 03, 2020

Publication as Historical Document

As it does periodically, the UNC Charlotte university recently held a book sale for books being withdrawn, and like many other people I cannot resist. I picked up Samuel Flagg Bemis' A Diplomatic History of the United States, 4th edition, published in 1955. Bemis is the historian who published a widely and long-used textbook on U.S. policy toward Latin America, which I blogged about years ago when I was writing my own. Among other things, it's openly (like, really openly) pro-imperialist.

When you think of the countless readers of these volumes, highly educated, male, and white people who would likely go on to be influential in any number of ways, you can see how ingrained bad history could become.

So, for example, at the end of the Latin America section, Bemis writes that "totalitarianism, the shape of international communism, succeeded in intruding itself openly into Guatemala, and covertly into other states and colonies of the Western Hemisphere, without the American republics being yet willing to resort to more than empty words" (p. 786). However, "a successful anticommunist revolution in Guatemala temporarily eased the situation."

This is factually incorrect and a bad interpretation to boot, but there would be no way for anyone (if they happened to be inclined) to know that. Fortunately, that is not true anymore. I've been thinking about how what we write becomes a historical document on its own. So in 50 years, someone writing about U.S.-Latin American relations may take a look at my own textbook and point out how my interpretations reflected the era I lived in, perhaps in ways I've never even considered.


Monday, March 02, 2020

Improving the Academic Publishing Process

Mike Munger has an interesting post on academic publishing. We use an archaic system that doesn't work well, so change seems inevitable. That change, he thinks, will be an online and transparent process with reviews and citations, with academic prestige given to those who (pseudonymously) provide high-quality reviews. Go read the whole thing.

I hope things move in this direction. I've worked with large publishing corporations both as a textbook author and as a journal editor, then learned more from our university library how their journal budget works, and this is mindbogglingly and depressingly expensive. Not only that, but authors--especially untenured, who have a short window of publication to keep their jobs--are unhappy with how slow the traditional process is. I would love to see the kind of system that Mike suggests.

I've published in all kinds of ways, which has taught me something. There are the standards: the academic monograph with a university press, edited volume, textbook, peer-review journal article, and the book review. But I've dabbled in many non-peer reviewed avenues, from this blog, my podcast, posts and op-eds elsewhere, tweets, and even an Open Access textbook.

The standards are great in their own way and convey expertise, but increasingly I find them limiting. My hope is that the traditional and the modern can merge more. In the book I am writing (at a glacially slow pace because of my administrative work) I've put chapters up electronically as I finish drafts. I have the privilege to do so, in the sense that I do not "need" the publication do I don't fear intellectual theft and if people don't like what I am writing, it doesn't affect my employment. I wish the publication process could be more innovative, more creative, and integrate podcasts, posts, and the like.

Make it an interactive intellectual process. I find that so much more satisfying. Writing a book, for example, is a lonely enterprise. You sit alone, thinking, staring at the screen, looking things up, and typing. You write some number of words a day and then reread them the next day to see what should be cut or revised. Maybe you have a writing group, but I think that's the exception. We should think of controlled, constructive ways to get your drafts reviewed online, a formal ways of posting bits (even in audio form) online. This is what we do in writing intensive courses at UNC Charlotte--it's an iterative process, with feedback all along the way.


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