Friday, July 31, 2020

Michael Kozak on Latin America Policy

Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Michael Kozak, talked on-the-record about U.S. policy. Here is the gist:

--The Bolivian coup government can delay the presidential election, no biggie.

--The Cuba embargo is totally going to work. History tells us so!

--Bolsonaro is, well, and Brazil, geez, they're tough, who the hell knows what's going on.

--Nicolás Maduro won't face up to reality so we are kinda out of ideas.

--Crap, you're going to keep asking me about Trump's comments and I sure as shit don't want to get into that, but some delays are OK and some aren't.


Thursday, July 30, 2020

Government Violence in Bolivia

Andrew Pagliarini writes in The New Republic about the political crisis in Bolivia. He links to the new report by Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic and the University Network for Human Rights, which is really disturbing. The title is They Shot Us Like Animals so you immediately get the drift.

According to witnesses, government repression since November 2019 has extended beyond killing protestors to quell criticism. The government has harassed, arbitrarily arrested, and tortured people that it perceives to be outspoken against the Áñez administration. Many Bolivians have found themselves facing charges or detention for vaguely defined crimes such as sedition, while others have been attacked in the streets by security forces and para-state actors. Certain visible groups are particularly susceptible to this persecution, including journalists, human rights defenders, and politicians. The result of this repression has been a pervasive climate of fear in many communities. 

Pagliarini frames the postponement of the presidential election in terms of lithium. Like so many other times in Latin America, political crisis and U.S. interests centers on a primary good deemed to be essential. And we're all using lithium.

Añez will hold on as long as she can, so international pressure is essential. Sadly, this will definitely not come from the Trump administration, which rushed to give the new government aid. As usual there is no unified stance among Latin American countries or any regional leadership on it.


Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Making Latin America Policy

I recommend Evan Ellis' post at Global Americans on his recently completed year at the U.S. State Department Policy Planning Staff. He now returns to the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. It is a useful read both for its insider look and its discussion of "why does this matter?"

Here is a key point:
The problem is also compounded by the fundamental orientation of the State Department to tell our partners what we think and want, rather than listening to what they think and want. While seasoned diplomats know better in their personal interaction, I observed the balance of the work that came across my desk to be about “transmitting” rather than “receiving.” Every high-level meeting involves the preparation of “talking points” seeking to advance an agenda, too seldom did they include questions about what our partners thought or needed.
This echoes Lars Schoultz's In Their Own Best Interest, where he questions all "uplifting" aid, the effects of which are never measured. We can check boxes on delivery and execution, but not on whether it actually makes lives better. Making lives better requires starting with what our partners actually want. This has often been true, but is accentuated in the Trump era.
In my own work, I did not see substantial evidence that the strategy and policy documents of each organization are actively used as guides to action by the other, beyond superficial references to fundamental documents such as the National Security Strategy. I also witnessed and participated in the drafting of some interagency documents, but beyond the somewhat useful exercise of meeting and coordinating about their wording, I did not perceive that the result meaningfully impacted the direction of either state or the other U.S. government entities involved.
This is clearly a Trump administration problem, though past administrations were clearly not immune.  Unlike the past, though, the essential problem now is that policy is made by tweet, with government agencies scrambling to interpret it just like the rest of us. How do you feel like you're doing something meaningful when the president ignores you?

I appreciate these kinds of perspectives. As a side note, as he does not address it, I know a number of people who have moved from academia to policy making and back, and I know their view of of the relevance and accuracy of academic work changed dramatically. I have not felt great temptation to try the policy making world myself, even as I recognize that even in small doses it would make us better analysts.


Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Kirk Tyvela's The Dictator Dilemma

I read Kirk Tyvela's The Dictator Dilemma: The United States and Paraguay in the Cold War am writing a review for The Latin Americanist. I really liked it.

The “dictator dilemma” was often at the core of U.S. policy toward Latin America during the Cold War. U.S. policy makers professed commitment to democracy, yet commonly supported pro-U.S. dictatorships to advance U.S. security interests. The dilemma played out clearly in Paraguay, where dictator Alfredo Stroessner ruled by force and won elections with around 90% of the vote from 1954 to 1989. Kirk Tyvela’s book is a deeply researched and compelling addition to the literature on U.S.-Latin American relations.
You'll have to wait until later in the year to read the rest. But it's a great read.

One thing I liked in particular was his attention to Paraguayan sources. He used Paraguayan archives but only to the extent that they exist, which is minimal. That is the big challenges for future scholars, which will require close consultation with local experts of whatever country (and hopefully publishing collaboration as well). Are there untapped primary sources? The literature on U.S.-Latin American relations cries out for it.


What Biden Policy Toward Latin America Might Look Like

A few days ago I wrote about the Latin America part of the Democratic Party's platform. Now Juan Gonzalez, who as an Deputy Assistant Secretary of State was part of Latin America policy under Obama, writes in Americas Quarterly about what a Biden administration policy could look like.

The main thing I like about it is that he brings Mexico front and center, whereas the platform actually doesn't even mention it. Mexico is our most important Latin American partner by far, and must be part of any discussion of trade, immigration and/or Central America. There is a lot of work to be done, and we need Mexico's help to do it.

I also like that Colombia gets more attention, because the peace process needs support, and as he points out, we need to get beyond narcotization. He mentions helping with the exodus of Venezuelans, but I would also like the U.S. to be more publicly mindful of displaced Colombians as well.

There is more, on Brazil, the Caribbean, climate, multilateral response to Covid-19, and even the simple task of not being a model of corruption. Just that would be nice.
The great visibility of the United States makes us an example all over the world, for better or for worse. When we live up to our ideals as a nation, it bolsters civic-minded leaders elsewhere. But when our leaders deny facts and model corrupt behavior, it encourages actors who are anathema to our hemisphere’s democratic progress and social advancement. The task of building back better requires us to find common cause in our shared prosperity, a renewed partnership on climate change, a resolve to guarantee the security of our citizens, and a sense of urgency toward realizing a shared vision of a hemisphere that is secure, middle class, and democratic.


Monday, July 27, 2020

Venezuelan Healthcare and Covid-19

This morning, Chris Sabatini at Chatham House moderated a Zoom panel entitled, "How Prepared is Venezuela's Healthcare System for Covid-19." The participants were:

José Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director, Americas Division, Human Rights Watch
Tamara Taraciuk Broner, Acting Deputy Director, Americas Division, Human Rights Watch
Dr Kathleen Page, Associate Professor of Medicine, John Hopkins University

The answer to the panel's title question is, as anyone paying even passing attention would accurately guess, emphatically no. There is no good news. There is no silver lining. A massively corrupt and uncaring dictatorship is letting people die and lying about everything. Doctors are washing their hands from the drips of air-conditioning units before doing surgery. Many hospitals don't have potable water. Aid is tricky and the gasoline shortage makes it hard to reach the interior of the country. We have no idea how many people have the virus and how many people have died from it. Repression makes it hard to find out anything. BTW, I had never heard the phrase "verbal autopsy" before. That's where we are in terms of data collection, down to trying to get information on demand for funeral homes, but even then people are afraid to talk openly. It's an onslaught of bad, but Covid-19 has distracted the world from the disaster.

What can the international community do? We need a truly multilateral effort with a common position. José Miguel Vivanco lamented the Trump's administration embrace of militaristic rhetoric, which makes things worse. The UN is barely paying attention.

John Hopkins worked with Human Rights Watch before Covid-19, and already last year warned that Venezuela was in a dire healthcare crisis.

Anyway, it was a really interesting discussion, but one that left me sad and frustrated.


Nicaraguans Want Change and Don't Thinks It's Too Likely

Manuel Orozco directed a survey in Nicaragua for the Inter-American Dialogue. The results show deep distrust that has developed over years of corrupt government, from Daniel Ortega of course but also the right. Nicaraguans want free elections and they also want good choices, and they don't see either happening.

It would be logical to assume that Nicaraguans would lay the blame for the crisis--political, economic, public health, etc.--on Daniel Ortega. But that's only partially true. This graph caught my attention the most:

Several of these questions get at the repression and ineptness off the government, but a lot of people see this as just another example of Sandinista/right political conflict, which has dominated the country for over 40 years. Further, check out the sizable chunk of people who believe the crisis stems from the U.S. and the right.

Who do Nicaraguans want to vote for? They don't seem to see good options. They don't identify with the political parties and a majority doesn't even identify as "pro-government" or "pro-opposition." If the election were held today, a large majority either doesn't know or would not choose from any candidate (which they could write in). They think there will be fraud and see international observers as important.

What can we take away from this?

--Lack of popular interest in the opposition and an alternate leader works very much to Ortega's favor.
--International observers are critical for the legitimacy of any election. The next presidential election is now scheduled for November 2021.
--Ortega's inept response to Covid-19 is truly devastating. No one believes him when he says it's barely affecting the country.
--There is support for sanctions, but they should stay very focused on the Ortega clique.
--as with Venezuela, the situation keeps getting worse with no real solution in sight.


Friday, July 24, 2020

MLB (Weakly) Acknowledges Injustice in Venezuela

Last night was opening night for Major League Baseball, a huge thing for all of us baseball fans. The issue of social justice was apparent, down to the highly visible "BLM" stenciled on the pitching mound. Before the game, the players knelt and held a long, black tapestry, the brainchild of Phillies star Andrew McCutchen. This sort of display is radical for baseball.

What I didn't know is that McCutchen meant it as a general statement about injustice, and specifically included Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.
"This is a moment for us to honor each other, to honor the things that we're going through," he said. "With the social injustices we're going through in this country, with the things that exist outside our nation -- places like Venezuela, the Dominican Republic. To honor that and show that we honor each other, that we have each other's back, that we're going to fight for each other. And the way we do that is by collectively being together as one. This is a representation of that."
I can't find anything to suggest that McCutchen has talked about Venezuela before, or even what exactly he's referring to in the DR. It might be as simple as the fact that he has teammates from there. In terms of injustice, he certainly needs to add Cuba (I don't think there are any Cubans on the 40 man roster for the Phillies, which might account for the omission).

The acknowledgment, therefore, is pretty weak, to the point that hardly anyone is aware. I wish players, announcers, and writers would give it some more attention. Baseball is an international game, and players from other countries face problems that are different but sometimes no less dire.


Thursday, July 23, 2020

Latin America in the 2020 Democratic Platform

Here is a link to the latest draft of the Democratic Party Platform. Here is what I wrote about 2016 in Global Americans. The party is not paying much attention to Latin America, either then or now. Back then, I wrote that countries were just jumbled together. In 2020 they solved that problems by not mentioning countries at all. Mexico is not mentioned at all, even in the discussion of USMCA. 

I know, I know, the platform is just a basic document of values, with a lot of cooks making the soup. But as I noted last year, is it so hard to say we support the Colombia peace process and anti-corruption efforts in Central America, we value Mexico for everything, and the like?

Below is the "Americas" section:
Democrats believe the Western Hemisphere is America’s strategic home base—a region bound together by common values, history, and vision of a more prosperous, democratic, and secure future. When the United States hosts the region’s leaders at next year’s Summit of the Americas—the first to be held here since the 1994 inaugural meeting in Miami—we will turn the page on the Trump Administration’s denigration and extortion of our neighbors, and we will chart a new era of cooperation based on partnership and shared responsibility for the region we all call home. 
"Denigration and extortion." Strong, but accurate. I really don't like "strategic home base," which is militarist and imperialist. It's not our home--it's their home.
Democrats will reaffirm the importance of North America to U.S. global economic
competitiveness. We will ensure the USMCA lives up to its commitment to create prosperity for American workers, and we will strictly enforce compliance with its labor and environmental provisions. We will reinvigorate and build upon the North American Plan for Animal and Pandemic Influenza launched under the Obama-Biden Administration and work with our partners to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused the biggest economic decline in history across Latin America and the Caribbean. 
This is a funny paragraph, beginning with acknowledging Trump's passage of a new bill, then pivoting to an Obama policy as counterweight. The labor and worker language is like 2016, which also reflected Bernie Sanders' influence, but I feel like the wording is stronger now. 
Rather than coerce our neighbors into supporting cruel migration policies, we will work with our regional and international partners to address the root causes of migration—violence and insecurity, weak rule of law, lack of educational and economic opportunity, pervasive corruption, and environmental degradation. Rather than encourage climate denial and environmental devastation, we will rally the world to protect the Amazon from deforestation, protect Indigenous peoples, and help vulnerable nations in the Caribbean and Central America adapt to the impacts of climate change. And rather than imitate populist demagogues, we will link arms with our neighbors to realize our shared aspirations for the region’s future. 
This is new and good. In 2016, Democrats framed immigration largely in domestic terms. Viewing it in structural terms, including climate, is a reality-based view, and very necessary.
We will reject President Trump’s failed Venezuela policy, which has only served to entrench Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorial regime and exacerbate a human rights and humanitarian crisis. To rise to the occasion of the world’s worst refugee crisis and worst humanitarian crisis outside a warzone in decades, the United States will mobilize its partners across the region and around the  world to meet the urgent needs of the people of Venezuela, and grant Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans in the United States. Democrats believe that the best opportunity to rescue Venezuela’s democracy is through smart pressure and effective diplomacy, not empty, bellicose threats untethered to realistic policy goals and motivated by domestic partisan objectives. 
There are no specifics and Biden has never had any beyond doing mostly what Trump is doing without the empty threats. TPS is clearly critical, so a good step forward and he really needs to contrast himself in Florida on that issue.
Democrats will also move swiftly to reverse Trump Administration policies that have
undermined U.S. national interests and harmed the Cuban people and their families in the United States, including its efforts to curtail travel and remittances. Rather than strengthening the regime, we will promote human rights and people-to-people exchanges, and empower the Cuban people to write their own future. 
This is an easy one. Obama started it, and Biden will get back to that point and move forward again.


Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Carlos Trujillo: Trump Loyalist for Latin America

Check out my post over at Global Americans about the nomination of Carlos Trujillo to be Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. My take is that he would be the least qualified person in the position's history and is there solely because of loyalty to Donald Trump. He is very much a "troika of tyranny" kind of guy.

He even showed that in the hearing yesterday, where he repeated Trump's favorite line of a military option in Venezuela still being on the table. It is Trump's way of telling everyone how tough he is.

There is no particular reason he wouldn't be confirmed, in the sense that he hasn't done anything extra objectionable since his last confirmation. Senator Ben Cardin briefly held up his nomination to the OAS in 2018 to get more information from the State Department about TPS, so something like that could potentially happen again.


Friday, July 17, 2020

Suffering Matters: When Political Leaders Get Covid-19

Boz has an ungated post from his newsletter about Latin American leaders who have Covid-19. I had been thinking of writing briefly about this as well, and he mentions what I had been thinking about:

In a presentation last week, I said my big concern was “Bolsonaro is going to survive coronavirus and then double down on being an idiot because his own survival will give confirmation bias to his belief that the disease is not that bad.” I stand by that comment.
I think this merits more attention, in Latin America and everywhere else. However, it's not about "surviving." I would call it "non-suffer bias." Those who get it and suffer are never the same. Those who get it and have only mild symptoms have a very different narrative. For them, it's just the flu or maybe just an irritating cold.

The Governor of Oklahoma announced he had Covid-19 even as he refused to mandate masks. He said he was achy but not too bad. Bolsonaro got it (tested positive twice!) and seems similarly little affected, which is the case for a lot of people. Covid-19 is not the Superflu of The Stand but rather a more crafty thing that kills the vulnerable and also kills and maims others in unpredictable ways. If you are a skeptic when you get it, you come out feeling more sure of skepticism if it only touched out lightly.

Politically, this is potentially huge. If a skeptic gets the virus and recovers easily, their ongoing story is that this is no big deal, just a bad cold, just a flu, and their platform gives that wide dissemination. They have "proof" in their own experience.

Contrast that to Juan Orlando Hernández, who was in the hospital, feared for his life, and made an emotional plea when he left the hospital. And that's a very conservative president. He survived but suffered, so his narrative is different. Boris Johnson suffered and now wants mandatory masks in shops, which fellow conservatives don't like.

I see lots of "ha ha, karma" tweets when skeptics are tested positive, but that entirely misses the point. It is the opposite when the virus treats them gently, and that has political repercussions.


Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Evangelicalism Offers a Way Out for Gang Members

José Miguel Cruz and Jonathan D. Rosen, "Mara Forever? Factors Associated with Gang Disengagement in El Salvador." Journal of Criminal Justice 69 (July-August 2020).

This study examines the factors associated with intentions to leave a gang in a context controlled by some of the most violent and structured street gangs in the Americas. It contends that group interactions better explain intentions to leave a gang in a place like El Salvador than life-course events.

Based on a series of logistic regressions using a cross-sectional survey with nearly 1196 active and former gang members in El Salvador, we identify the factors associated with disengagement intentions. We complement the analysis with 24 in-depth interviews with former gang members.

We find that group-related variables, such as the number of gang members in the clique, learning that a peer has successfully left the gang, incarceration, and affiliation with an Evangelical church are the most critical factors associated with attempts of disengagement. Intentions to leave the group are a direct function of the gang's ability to regulate the life and peer relationships of its members.

Social environments controlled by gang rule constrain the potential effects of life-course events. They curb the chances of disengagement, even among those with maturational tools required to desist from gang life.

Jonathan Rosen has done a lot of great work on gangs in El Salvador, and we discussed the issue of leaving gangs on my podcast back in December 2018. As always with his work, read the methodology section about interviewing gang members--it's not your everyday work.

The key findings are that "life-course" events, such as getting married, employment, or having children, don't seem to prompt gang members to leave. Instead, religion is central, both because it offers some moral clarity for the individual, but also because it is an accepted reason. In other words, you won't get killed for it.

It would be neat to connect studies like this to analyses of Evangelicalism in Central America. It's interesting, for example, that Evangelicalism offers a path out that Catholicism apparently does not. Perhaps only Evangelicalism provides a sense of being saved, of actually changing course. As Cruz and Rosen note, gang leaders "only accept the Evangelical church." Catholicism doesn't count.


Monday, July 13, 2020

The Political Impact of AMLO's Trip

AMLO ass-kissing trip to visit Donald Trump was a strange spectacle, with the Mexican President insisting, contrary to what we've all seen and heard for years, that Trump was respectful of Mexico. AMLO decided long ago that the best way to deal with Trump is kiss his ass. For AMLO, "respectful" basically means that Trump hasn't tweet-stormed him. After all, not long after meeting, Trump said the U.S. would be "inundated" by Covid-19 without the border wall, which is both absurd and not respectful.

Jorge Castañeda makes the argument in a CNN interview that AMLO's praise might win Trump the election, or at least preventing him from losing it, which would happen if he didn't win Texas. His take is that Mexican-American voters will hear AMLO and think, "Oh, Trump's not so bad for Mexico and Mexicans." Indeed, a Trump campaign official said the comment as "as good as it gets--basically an endorsement." 

Yes, it is basically an endorsement, especially combined with snubbing Joe Biden. But I still am not buying the overall argument. If you are Mexican-American, you have seen for yourself the impact of Stephen Miller and Trump's policies, perhaps even firsthand. AMLO doesn't erase that.

However, I could see this working for white people not of Latin American descent who otherwise don't know much about the topic. Even so, I don't see this issue as swinging a voter. They will more likely be voting on the economy and Covid-19.


Saturday, July 04, 2020

Ibram X. Kendi's How to Be an Antiracist

Ibram X. Kendi's How to Be an Antiracist is part manifesto, part memoir, and part national history. His discussion is interspersed with personal reflections that repudiate not only his own past words and actions, but also his parents and others. He is unsparing when it comes to becoming antiracist ("I arrived at Temple as a racist, sexist homophobe").

He argues that you can either be racist or antiracist. If you claim neutrality, you are leaving racist structures in place, which is therefore racist. And you can move in and out of the two--it's not a permanent state, but rather a continuous aspiration. For example, if you claim to hire based only on merit, you are failing to understand that you cannot avoid seeing race in ways that society has taught you. Pretending not to see race when you clearly do is a problem--your biases will affect you while you pretend they don't exist. It is such a simple yet powerful argument (and, in fact, so perfectly applicable to academia).

He contrasts antiracists with assimilationists and segregationists. Both of the latter are racist because they both assume a hierarchy of racial value. In one, you try to be like the "best" group and in the other you remain forever separate. And both ignore the fact that what are commonly believed to be inherent characteristics of different racial groups is in fact just the product of policies. Antiracists focus on the policies. Violence comes from poverty, not skin color, and policies can lift people out of poverty.

Each chapter is a theme: body, space, sexuality, and many others. What emerges is the tremendous complexity behind antiracism, which requires constant rethinking of long-held assumptions and beliefs. Further, it is a mistake to think of antiracist progress without considering the accompanying progress of racists, who find ever new ways to subvert antiracist efforts, like ubiquitous use of the term "reverse discrimination" or "all lives matter."

He ends on a positive note, amazingly enough with a comparison to his own battle with cancer. Racism is a cancer, which is nasty and strong but still can be defeated. But it's hard even for the most determined, because it involves pushing back against centuries of racist power structures.


Thursday, July 02, 2020

Review of George Orwell's Animal Farm

After many years, I reread George Orwell's Animal Farm (I think it was assigned to me in high school at some point). It is, of course, an allegory of the Soviet Union, with Stalin (Napoleon the pig) gradually subverting a revolution for his own power, eventually becoming indistinguishable from those who ran things in the past.

As we listen to an administration that lies in precisely the same ways as the ruling pigs in the novel, who changed the revolutionary commandments while pretending they remained the same, Orwell reminds us that this isn't about communism, or even necessarily the Soviet Union. It's about power-hungry leaders. For Orwell, the communal farm run by the animals together remained a desired goal. He was all for socialism. He disliked both capitalism and communism--in the end, both result in a small elite that lies and uses force to keep itself in power at the expense of everyone else.

I can't think of this novel without also thinking of Pink Floyd's Animals album. The song "Sheep" is great, though different from the novel, where the sheep don't overthrow anything. I doubt Orwell could imagine the sheep killing the dogs. Actually, Orwell never presents any answers--he just warns.


Wednesday, July 01, 2020

End the Cold War Already

When do we get to end the Cold War? This year has been horrible in so many ways, and some icing on the cake is that I am pretty certain I haven't heard "socialist" and "communist" as epithets this much since, well, the actual Cold War. I had been thinking about this, then read this interview between Tim Padgett and Frank Mora, who is stepping down as director of FIU's Latin America & Caribbean Center:

So it's no secret you're a Democrat – but you're a Cuban-American Democrat in Miami. You support engagement with communist Cuba. Twenty years ago, more conservative Cubans might have called you a comunista. Do you still feel like a rare bird here in that sense?

Now you see a majority of Cuban-Americans agreeing with President Trump's view, which is a dramatic change in only a couple of years. But to be frank with you, Tim, that language, that rhetoric is coming back. The use of “socialism” and “communism” to try to discredit those who don't agree with the mainstream Cuban Americans is rearing its head again. And I think it's unfortunate.
This is exactly it. You get Black Lives Matter labeled as communist. AMLO gets criticized for talking to "communist regimes." Florida Governor Rick Scott says "The Communist Party of China is in for world domination…And so it’ll be a pretty dark world." Like we live in the Marvel Universe. And we'd be here all day if I started really listing all the inaccurate, simplistic, and even laughable ways the word "socialism" gets thrown around. Did you know that taking down statues of the Confederacy leads to socialism, because that's what happened in Venezuela? I bet you didn't, but you do now!

And so what does this mean in practice? As former Cuba Chargé d'affaires Jeffrey DeLaurentis put it in a recent op-ed:

It's as if we had regressed to the 1980s, when we looked the other way at the abuses of right-wing dictators and excoriated only those on the left.

That sort of thing in fact has happened since the 1980s (see George W. Bush and John Bolton) and I complained then too. Throw around words like "communist" and "regime," and you get ideological cover to go after your political enemies, wherever you might find them.

When will we finally be free of the Cold War? The example of the Confederacy tells us it could a long time, perhaps even long after you and I are long gone. The symbols of the Confederacy are a great cover for racism--hey, it's just heritage! "Communism" is also a convenient and tidy cover, and ideologues don't give those up easily.


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