Thursday, May 28, 2020

Why Dialogue in Venezuela Isn't Working

David Smilde & Geoff Ramsey, "International Peacemaking in Venezuela’s Intractable Conflict. European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies," (109): 157–179.

Can international peacemaking efforts succeed in an intractable conflict such as the one in Venezuela? In this paper we put forward a conceptualization of peacemaking processes that underlines their ability to creatively change the terms of a conflict. Then we look at the four dialogue and negotiation processes that have occurred during the government of Nicolás Maduro. Our review shows that while it is clear that the Maduro government uses dialogue processes as a delay tactic through which it can divide and demobilize the opposition, clear progress has been made in the mediators’ ability to generate concrete articulation and discussion of the conflicting parties’ demands. However, international allies on each side of the conflict are affecting the calculations of the two sides, working against an agreement. 
First off, I love the fact that the Venezuela Politics and Human Rights blog is noted as the source of much of the empirical content. That's actually one of the great things about blogs. And as a result the article is a useful summary of all the mediation efforts. It would be a good reading in a U.S.-Latin American relations class.

It is common to hear that dialogue is useless in Venezuela, mostly because the Maduro government acts in bad faith and uses the process to its own advantage, gaining time as a result. Smilde and Ramsey say we have to dig deeper, examining the context of each round of talks and the specific role of the mediator. I think the most important takeaway, and indeed it matches conventional wisdom, is that the U.S. messes up mediation by badmouthing it and refusing to let it on sanctions, while Russia and China mess it up by giving the regime feasible alternatives to compromise. Maduro has just waited it out and he's still in power. When the Trump administration declares dialogue to be pointless, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We're left with a situation where dialogue cannot realistically work without major shifts in the views of the U.S., Russia, and China. Well, and now maybe add Iran to that list. The U.S. context can only change if Joe Biden wins, and even that wouldn't have an effect for months. Neither Russia nor China is opposed to dialogue per se, but each wants to protect its investments and each also views Venezuela within the prism of rivalry with the U.S. Being an irritant and projecting power into the Western Hemisphere serves their interests.

Were you hoping for a happy ending? I hope not.


Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Latin American Militaries and Covid-19

Today I listened to a panel where a variety of experts (Arturo Sotomayor as moderator, Kristina Mani, Maiah Jaskoski, Harold Trinkunas, Adriana Abdenur, and Rut Diamint) on Latin American civil-military relations talked about the military's response to Covid-19. There were a lot of good points made, but two things in particular struck me. I should also note that these points are not attributed to any particular person.

First, there is almost no public discussion about it. Latin American and U.S. analysts alike have been talking a lot about this in recent months, but seemingly their alarm is not mirrored in Latin American legislatures or in the general public. I think this is a critical and rarely discussed issue. We do generally see the public expressing confidence in the armed forces, even in countries with troubled histories. However, does that translate to more or less blanket approval of increased military actions during this crisis? If that is the case, then analysts can wring their hands all they want, but the situation is not likely to improve.

Second it's dangerous to frame the virus in terms of national security and "war." This officially militarizes the situation, but also allows for the government to justify actions and sacrifices that otherwise would not be acceptable in a democracy. It allows for skirting the constitution. We've already seen the problems with the "war on drugs" and the "war on terrorism" both in the U.S. and in Latin America.

This issue is just getting more important and relevant by the day.


Thursday, May 21, 2020

Review of Allcock's Thomas Mann

I always like a good questioning of conventional wisdom, and Thomas Tunstall Allcock serves it up in Thomas C. Mann: President Johnson, the Cold War, and the Restructuring of Latin American Foreign Policy (2018). In class and in my textbook, I've never referred favorably to either Mann or LBJ. I actually discovered I have one sentence that sums them up:

He [LBJ] was even more inclined than Kennedy to forge ties with Latin American militaries and to use covert action. His choice of advisor on Latin American affairs showed that commitment (135-136).

Pretty dismissive. I actually wonder why, given Mann's opposition to the Bay of Pigs invasion and LBJ's outright invasion of the DR, I used the word "covert." But I digress, as they say.

The now infamous Mann Doctrine accepted anti-Communist authoritarianism, while LBJ invaded the Dominican Republican and supported the wave of military coups that hit the region after the Cuban Revolution. It ends up not being a total reappraisal because Allcock is cautious about going too far in that direction, but it's a needed addition to the era--I've always found Mann interesting but there is little about him.

One of his arguments is that "Johnson's presidency still compares favorably to others in the Cold War era in terms of the scale of financial aid provided to the region and the priority given to encouraging Latin American development" (4). To be fair, this is a relatively low bar.

Further, Johnson's efforts to reshape the Alliance for Progress was a "genuine alternative" to the entirely modernization-obsessed JFK example. He argues Johnson and Mann were rooted in the New Deal era with a sense of limits to U.S. policy. Richard Goodwin writes in his memoir that Mann was "a colonialist by mentality who believes the 'natives'--the Latin Americans--need to be shown who is boss" and so the Alliance was dead (245). Allcock takes a poke at the "best and the brightest," (including Goodwin specifically) a club to which Mann didn't belong, arguing instead that he was pragmatic and did not fall for grand theoretical generalizations. Allcock sees Mann's years as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico as evidence of his mastery of diplomacy, even as Goodwin and others whined about him.

He says it is not a moral story: "If any value judgment of that policy is present, it is that flexibility and a willingness at least to consider the interests of other nations is a position preferable to one of neglect or domination" (10).

As for the so-called Mann Doctrine, Allcock views it in large part as a creation of a hostile press, which was in the Kennedy camp and preferred the higher soaring rhetoric. Mann was furious about the leak of his meeting (which is what Tad Szulc at the New York Times based his article on) and noted that Kennedy's own previous nominee had said more or less the same thing.

We arrive at a place where Mann is not exactly rehabilitated but he is situated in terms of continuity. He's certainly no better than the Best and the Brightest, whose bestness and brightestness didn't stop a stupid invasion of a Latin American country. But by no means did he support Latin American democracy when a Communist threat seemed present. In that, he's no worse either. No one in U.S. policy circles really thought non-elite Latin Americans should decide their own futures if that even appeared to threaten U.S. interests. No one in U.S. policy circles doubted that many deaths would occur as a result. 

He was no angel but no more a devil. Mann was a skilled diplomat at particular times, which resolved conflicts that could've needlessly become a lot worse, such as in Panama. That's a good thing. Not huge, but a good thing. In the end, though:

[T]he commonly held view among historians that many of the efforts of this period--and particularly the Alliance--were failure is difficult to dispute" (219).

In the end, security always trumped everything else. I recommend the book, which is a good read.


Giammattei Says US Is Not An Ally

The Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center hosted a talk by Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei about Covid-19. He has taken strict measures, which in turn have generated criticism for their authoritarian nature, their impact on the economy, and even the sense that as a retired doctor he somehow feels he alone can save the country.

He started by saying that the strictness was necessary due to the lack of hospital space, sending people who tested positive straight to the hospital so they wouldn't infect the rest of their families. He mentioned that reopening would involve protocols and the ability to close areas (even departments) as needed, rather than the entire country.

Then Jason Marczak asked him rather diplomatically about the "role of the United States" and he was clearly pissed. Jason had made some mention of the US being an ally and Giammattei corrected him, saying Guatemala was an ally of the U.S. but the reverse was not true because Guatemala was not being treated that way. The Trump administration is deporting infected Guatemalans, which is a major source of the country's cases. He understands that the U.S. wants to deport, he said, but not why they're deporting infected people. We've complied with all the protocols like the CDC recommends, he added, but they haven't.

And who can argue? I should point out as well that the Trump administration used the CDC to block all asylum seekers, infected or not. Now all those being deported are stigmatized in Guatemala as well. Not exactly the work of an ally.


Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Cuba in the 2020 Presidential Election

I listened to a Zoom webinar on the implications of the 2020 presidential election on U.S.-Cuban relations, with Bill LeoGrande, Margaret Crahan, and Phil Brenner. Arturo López-Levy (who I talked to last year on my podcast) moderated.

LeoGrande thinks Biden is missing an opportunity, which I agree with. He characterized Biden as     having a strategy of "caution and avoidance." He could focus on remittances and family reunification, and follow Obama's strategy of reaching out to moderate Cuban-Americans. (Interestingly, he also thought Biden should probably pay a lot more attention to Puerto Ricans in Florida). He also figures there is a very good chance Cuba goes back on the state-sponsor of terror list.

Biden hasn't totally ignored Cuba. I criticized Biden's tweet going after Trump for failing to deny Cuba's place on the UN Human Rights Commission and how it smacked of hypocrisy, so was a bad strategy (unlike other tweets, he even put it out in Spanish). I got pushback on that, but it still makes sense to me--focus more on Trump's punishment of average Cubans and how it serves no purpose. Don't treat Cuban-Americans as primarily hardline. Normalization of relations was a popular move so stick with it.

Meanwhile, Venezuela is a wild card. Crahan notes rumors of a lot of illegal Venezuelan money coming to Republicans during the campaign. I hadn't heard that before. Regardless, the "Democrats are soft on Maduro and want the U.S. to become like Venezuela" will certainly be a major message.

As usual, all eyes on Florida in a U.S. presidential election.


Saturday, May 16, 2020

Review of T.H. White's The Once & Future King

T.H. White's The Once & Future King was one of a number of books I have owned for years and always meant to read but hadn't. In fact, toward the beginning of the novel an old movie ticket fell out that obviously I had used as a bookmark when I started it one time. The ticket was for the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley in April 1992, my senior year in college (the movie was Shadows & Fog, of which I have no memory). 

Then 28 years later, a UNC Charlotte student mentioned the book in a graduation message, and I learned it was one of my dean's favorite novels, so I finally read it. There were two things in particular I did not know about this book. First, it is remarkably modern and funny for something mostly written in 1938-1940 and then published as a whole in 1958. It is loaded with sex, violence, and sarcasm. Second, I did not know its core message was about mid-20th century international politics.

The arc of the book is from light to dark, starting with Arthur's story of pulling the sword out of the stone and trying to forge a sense of right and wrong to replace the mindless pursuit of battle, then moving to a lot of deceit and death. There are references to communism (Merlyn turned him into an ant early on to see what it was like, and they're communists with no individuality) and fascism, with Mordred compared directly to Hitler, complete with anti-Semitic public speeches. Among the many tragedies of the narrative is that Mordred forces Arthur into enforcing alliances with violence, thus spreading the misery that Arthur had originally tried to quell. Doing so also meant Arthur allowed his belief in using force to compel justice to supersede his personal wishes.

As the novel goes on, Arthur becomes more serious and more despondent. He can't think of any way to avoid war and to live in harmony. He goes round and round in his mind, knowing that all of his best efforts had the opposite effect he wanted. He used might to end might, and everything just got worse. White clearly despaired at humankind's inability to learn anything over time.

Throughout, though, there is wry humor. Early on, Arthur (then called Wart) speaks to a badger, who wanted to read him his dissertation: "He got few chances of reading his treatises to anybody, so he could not bear to let the opportunity slip by" (181). It gets Monty Pythonesque. Lancelot goes into a pavilion, falls asleep, and then "It was moonlight when he woke, and a naked man was sitting on his left foot, trimming his finger-nails" (337). They fight briefly and the man screams "You have cut open my liver" but then decides the wound is nothing, "a bit of a chip." Or, near the very end in a moment of high drama: "Gawaine was trying to think, an effort not made easy to him by practice" (609). These little asides are sprinkled everywhere. They lighten up a tale you know will end in nothing good, I suppose not unlike international politics at any given time.


Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Majoring in Spanish

This piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Ignacio Sánchez Prado about how the study of Spanish is discriminated against and dismissed made me think a lot. There are so many important elements in there, but I am going to shift to my own narrow undergraduate experience, because I keep thinking about it. One of his points is that we need to preserve and emphasize Spanish-language literature as an important thing to study, research, and teach to students. I can't agree more based on my own life.

I came to college with no real sense of what I wanted to do. I took Spanish because I had been doing so since 7th grade (I grew up in San Diego, where just about everybody did), through AP as a senior, so it made sense and seemed familiar. I loved the literature classes. I took more Spanish than Latin American lit--I don't know if that was because of the department at the time or my own prejudices (I eventually did a year abroad in Madrid). But the literature classes are why I decided to major in Spanish (along with Political Science). That combination was totally coincidental, but prompted me to take Latin American politics. It was a logical connection and I needed it for my Political Science major anyway.

I'd have to find my transcript to remember the exact classes I took, but two things stick with me. One was a course with John Polt. I remember being in the class quite distinctly, though I can't recall his teaching style per se. But I know he made the study of literature seem cool--I went to the bookstore and bought his translation of José Camilo Cela's San Camilo, 1936, which is a really hard to book to read, and which I tried to lumber through, mostly unsuccessfully. The other was reading pre-19th century Spanish literature, though I don't remember which class it was. That's why I love the Captain Alatriste novels by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Anyway, I'm on board with his conclusion:
Defending Latin American and Iberian culture at large is of particular importance in this age of Hispanophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment. We have the capacity to fight these phenomena, and a growing responsibility to do so. At a time when administrations are less likely than ever to invest in our growth, we need to bring into our departments subfields like Central American studies, Latinx Hispanophone literature, Afro-Hispanic studies, and indigenous studies. These are urgent areas of study — and there is student demand for them. If we are to deliver cultural recognition, inclusion, and justice to the largest immigrant populations and the speakers of the second-largest national language in the U.S., Iberian and Latin American studies should be front and center in conversations about literary studies. I hope that other humanists will fight alongside us against the existential crisis that threatens us all.


Thursday, May 07, 2020

The Venezuela Invasion Agreement

The Washington Post has the story about how Juan Guaidó's political strategist signed an agreement with a mercenary to invade Venezuela, the operation that failed and was always doomed to fail. The agreement is dated October 16, 2019 and it has the feel of a video game, with wanton violence, no accountability, and irreality.

The goal of the operation is made explicit and repeated throughout: "The exit/removal of current Venezuelan Regime and entrance/installation of recognized Venezuelan Government."

A lot of it is about money, both up front and later: "Following completion of the project, investors will have a preferred vender [sic] status with the new government in Venezuela" (3) Payment comes however they can get it: "In the event of cash insolvency, Administration may choose to make payments in barrels of oil." (4)

There is a lot of language, none of it believable, about about how the mercenaries were not doing the fighting and would only use force in self-defense. "Service Provide personnel are in an advisory capacity only. They are not combatants. They will not conduct unilateral operations. They will only conduct operations while colocated with Venezuelan Partner Group" (7)

There is a lot of discussion about Rules of Engagement and what you can destroy and kill. Infrastructure is fair game.  Planting mines is all good--no worries, we'll note where we put them. Hezbollah is OK (no, I am not making that up. It's specifically in there). You can detain citizens and search their homes. The whole thing is horrible.

And, naturally, the Venezuelan government had no jurisdiction over the group while it is performing its duties (23). The lunatics run the asylum. Oh, and if anyone sues the group, the Venezuelan government has to pay for its defense (38).

BTW, no one will know these are Americans. "They will do everything possible to conceal their identity to include but not limited to use of partner group uniforms, balaclavas, use of Badges and Credentials" (27).

And the kicker: the group has the right to loot any place it enters for an "objective," including real estate, art, and "money in bank accounts," then charge the Venezuelan government 14% of its value to return it. I am not making that up.

As Geoff Ramsey notes, a lot of this stuff directly violates Venezuela' international agreements. The fact that Juan Guaidó even entertained such nonsense tells you a lot about his judgment. If there's one thing the Venezuelan opposition is really good at, it's shooting itself in the foot.


Saturday, May 02, 2020

Total Wackos Try To Overthrow Maduro

Five years ago I reviewed Stephen Dando-Collin's book Tycoon's War about William Walker, which I recommend. It's all about a moronic shyster who thought he could invade Latin American countries with a ragtag group of losers. Everyone in the book is an asshole.

Fast forward to today. Joshua Goodman has a scoop about a moronic shyster from the U.S. who tried to help invade Venezuela and overthrow Nicolás Maduro with a ragtag group of losers. Everyone in the narrative is an asshole, and the Venezuelan leader is in federal prison on a narcotics charge. A bunch of dumbshits hung around a Bogotá hotel and cooked up a testosterone-fueled plan. Training with sawed-off broomsticks as guns, what could go wrong? Easy to see one of the re-open pseudo-soldier types (the "good people") deciding he could easily overthrow what he figured was a bunch of dumb Venezuelans. They all thought they'd get some cash from a wealthy member of a famous cheese-making family. Of course.

Goodman and the AP has found no evidence of Trump administration involvement. One of the dopes organizing the fiasco claimed to have administration support, but even those around him doubted it. Hard to imagine someone like John Bolton disliking such a scheme, though, and there's no way the administration didn't know it was happening. The Venezuelan ambassador to the UN criticized Goodman's article, saying it failed to give proper responsibility to the U.S. and Colombian governments.

Bozos like this have been around as long as men with weapons have been around.


Friday, May 01, 2020

The Experiment of Reopening

Michael Reid writes in The Economist about the pressure in Latin America to loosen quarantines. People in poverty simply can't remain locked down without substantial financial assistance. Across the region, they just start ignoring orders.

In most cases, the minority who are not respecting lockdowns are acting out of necessity. Data from Google, which tracks mobile phones, show more movement in poorer states and provinces in many countries. Several national governments, including those in Colombia and Peru, have been swift to get emergency payments to some of their poorer citizens. But that is a big challenge: one out of two Latin Americans works informally, often relying on daily cash takings. A new popular slogan holds that it is better to die of coronavirus than of hunger.
In the U.S., such resistance is embarrassingly different. People who could stay home demand their right to a...haircut. The reopen movement in the U.S. is tied closely to privilege. Even here, though, at a certain point people will resist because they will run out of money.

In both Latin America and here in the southeast, we are living science experiments. I feel this acutely as a resident of North Carolina. Neighboring Georgia has been reopened a week, while our current stay-at-home order expires on May 8 and Governor Roy Cooper will have to decide whether to extend it or start phased reopening. Like many other people, I am looking at the experimental group next to us, fearing a disaster and fervently hoping one never materializes. If the healthcare system in Georgia is not overrun, we will start reopening as well. Other states will follow. Given the potential human costs, it's unnerving.

There is a similar vibe in Latin America. Reopening may be geographically differentiated within a country, or national, but everyone will be looking intently at the effects versus places that have not opened up. The scary thing is that we're talking about potential catastrophe, namely death and hospitals being overrun. The risks are extraordinarily high, but it's going to happen sooner rather than later.


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