Saturday, August 29, 2020

Review of Vincent Bevins' The Jakarta Method

I recommend Vincent Bevins' recently published The Jakarta Method: Washington's Anticommunist Crusade & the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World. It starts with an extended discussion of Indonesia and then looks at how Suharto's brutality (the word "Jakarta" became a synonym for mass political murder) was copied elsewhere, with the U.S. government deeply involved everywhere. He uses interviews with those who suffered (and often emigrated) to show how people were affected and felt at the time.

From my perspective as a Latin Americanist, the book's global perspective makes it especially interesting. Events in one part of the world affect others. Revolutionaries and reactionaries alike are reading the news, and trying to glean lessons. Che Guevara and Fidel Castro famously decided from the 1954 Guatemala invasion that the electoral path was suicidal, but Indonesians were learning from Central America too. We know the U.S. government viewed Latin America in global terms, but we talk far less about how places like Indonesia resonated. Because of language barriers, those of us who study Latin America don't tend to do fieldwork in Asia.

The 1960s-1980s in particular was a time of wanton anti-communist slaughter. It was calculated, strategic, and entirely supported by the U.S. government. As he notes, the living carry psychological scars with them, and in Indonesia people still do not feel comfortable discussing it. Those labeled "communist" are still stigmatized, unlike Latin America where they're even becoming presidents of countries. Using the stories from this interviews, he traces the shift from hope and pride during the Sukarno government to fear after Suharto took over and killed roughly a million people.

Although it's not really a theme of the book, his interviews also show the global migratory impact of mass murder. His interviews, which are in different continents, show people fleeing in all directions, not even necessarily settling in the first country that will take them. I always talk about this in the Central American context in my U.S.-Latin American relations class. But I also lived it while being entirely ignorant of the causes at the time--Bevins mentions the so-called "boat people," some of whom ultimately ended up in the public schools I attended.

If there is an overarching political lesson in the book, sadly it is that mass murder worked amazingly well for U.S. political elites. The Cold War was "won" by preserving global capitalism and asserting U.S. hegemony. The average person in the United States is considerably wealthier than most people on the planet. And they are either unaware or uncaring about the violence that contributed to getting them there.


Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Venezuelan Government Attacks Health Workers

Amnesty International lays out the dire situation Venezuelan health workers are in. Repression, economic collapse, and lying all fold in together. 50% of health workers have emigrated rather than deal with dangerous conditions where often they arrive at work hungry. This is pure brain drain. 

“The Venezuelan authorities are either in denial about the number of health workers to have died from COVID-19, or they do not have accurate information about the precarious conditions in hospitals and the dire need for better protection of staff and patients alike. Either way, the government is being utterly irresponsible,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.
Nobody believes anything the government says, and Venezuela is the only country in the hemisphere to imprison doctors who speak truth to power (and then drag them to military tribunals!). There is, of course, lots of tweeting about how successful everything is.

In fact, Maduro’s spokespeople almost don’t reference how medical personnel are being affected anymore; they have even criminalized them. On May 22nd, the Information minister, Jorge Rodríguez, said: “Assume that you’re standing in front of a COVID-19 patient. Follow the protocol, use facemasks. We’ve seen videos (…) where healthcare workers aren’t using them. They’re not using gloves, they’re not using the suits they were given to work on these patients.”

But the equipment hasn’t arrived. MUV began a campaign on July 23rd to promote donations of biosafety equipment, facemasks, face guards, gloves, surgical caps and scrubs; in Táchira, they reported shortages of up to 70%. In Caracas, Ana Rosario Contreras said that they’re being forced to reuse facemasks and scrubs, a problem already reported by Monitor Salud: in seven out of thirteen hospitals in Caracas, there are no facemasks available, and they’re forced to reuse them in ten of those hospitals. 

 No surprise, then, that Maduro already has people lined up to test the Russian vaccine.


Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The Political Center in Colombia

The Canadian Council for the Americas held a webinar on the political center (sorry, centre!) in Colombia and whether it can unite. There was former Vice President Humberto de Calle (under Ernesto Samper, and he was also the head of the negotiating team with the FARC*) and then a bit later also Colombian journalists and a financier, moderated by Ken Frankel.

The quick answer is that it's really tricky.

De la Calle's main point was that, unlike Colombian political tradition, the center needed to start with a basic program rather than choosing a person to rally around. He gave various indicators, based on local election results and polls, about an appetite for centrist positions and parties. Centrist policy positions included agrarian reform, tax reform, pension reform, and crop substitution.

But that is where the conversation got more difficult. Responses included asking where was the focus on women and youth? If the right dominated non-urban areas, how was this going to function? What are some concrete objectives? Doesn't this seem too top-down? And, fundamentally, what is the "center" anyway?

Unless I missed it toward the end, when I had interruptions and missed chunks, the political mechanics of all this was missing. Who gets the ball rolling, which means controlling the message at the beginning? De la Calle advocated for self-exclusion, meaning no one would be rejected as long as they broadly accepted the program. But that depends on who defines the program.

I've written before about how the FARC really screwed the democratic left in Colombia, because it's too easy to connect the left to the FARC (and nowadays also to Venezuela, though I don't know how much that actually convinces people). But I hadn't thought as much about the center. This discussion demonstrated to me how tough such a project would be. The essential question "can it unite?" just kind of hung there. Fear has served the right very well, and it's hard to overcome.

* His overall political biography is really interesting.


Friday, August 14, 2020

Bolsonaro's Popularity

I recommend Brian Winter's article in Foreign Affairs on the durability of Jair Bolsonaro's popularity, which in fact just went up. He zeroes in on the country's interior:

The interiorzão is not defined on any map, but it generally refers to a belt of land sagging around the country’s geographic midsection, from the state of Mato Grosso do Sul in the west through Goiás, Minas Gerais, and parts of Bahia in the east. This is a Brazil of soy farms and cattle ranches, oversize Ford pickup trucks, air-conditioned shopping malls, and all-you-can-eat steakhouses. Some of it is old, but much of it was erected only in the last 30 years or so. Instead of Afro-Catholic syncretism and bossa nova, it boasts evangelical megachurches and sertanejo, a kind of tropicalized country music sung by barrel-chested men in cowboy hats and Wrangler jeans.It is Brazil's equivalent to flyover country, parts that are not tourist destinations and do not correspond to the foreigner's view of the country as a whole. As with Trump in the U.S., it constitutes a core of support that's not likely to fall away.
I can imagine a similar worldview holding there and here. What I consider to be destroying institutions, Bolsonaro/Trump supporters see "getting things done." What I see as unacceptable rhetoric, they see as a return to morality. What I see as conspiracy theories, they see as truths. What I clearly see as lying, they see as "telling it like it is." Brazil's political history is so different from the U.S., but there are parallels here.

As Brian writes, quite a few elites have repented their support for Bolsonaro. The same has happened here, but that doesn't necessarily signal change. That core is still there, and they love the show they're seeing. The difficulty for any analyst is to truly move away from trying to sort out self-interest. People adore their president despite the fact that he is screwing them. Depressed economic growth, rampant virus, you name it (wrecked post office, even!).

From an electoral standpoint, it's sobering. The party systems of the two countries are so different that comparison isn't worthwhile, but at a very basic level, established opposite parties will find it hard to convince that core base that they have anything to offer. To win, you need to bring everyone else together.


Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Completely Broken Immigration System

I watched WOLA's webinar on immigration: "Stranded Between Borders: Draconian Responses to a Regional Migration Crisis." Adam Isacson moderated, with the following guests:

Gretchen Kuhner, Institution for Women in Migration (Mexico),

Marco Romero, CODHES and Professor at the National University of Colombia

Ursula Roldán, Institute for Research and Projection on Global and Territorial Dynamics of the Rafael Landívar University (Guatemala)

It was particularly worthwhile because it didn't in fact focus on Trump per se, but rather the responses and realities in the Latin American countries.

The overall message is that the immigration system is utterly, terribly, broken. The Trump administration is not only anti-immigrant, but it reneges on agreements. AMLO bows down to Trump just to avoid being attacked, and his own anti-immigrant policies are fine with his base in Mexico. Colombia has nothing but short-term, emergency responses when it needs much more. Immigrants live precariously at borders with no solution in sigtht. Covid-19 hovers over all of this, because vulnerable migrants find themselves infected and bureaucracies have ground to a halt.

Tied to that, there is so little hope for meaningful change. No current president is willing to build a long-term humane system, and is generally doing the opposite. Even if Joe Biden wins the presidency, it will take a long time to undo the damage that the Trump administration inflicted on immigration policy and immigrants.

The only positive note was that remittances to Guatemala were up in July. I can't even imagine how that is possible, but it is.


Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Plan Colombia is Problematic

Michael Shifter writes of Brent Scowcroft in glowing terms for his role in promoting Plan Colombia. One thing I've noticed over the years is that advocates know Plan Colombia had some massively negative consequences, and so feel obligated to at least make some mention, but without going into detail and then head straight back to compliments. Examples from his short essay:

  • "however seriously flawed"
  • "Criticism centered around human rights concerns"
  • "failed to achieve its highest priority objective"
  • "for all of its flaws in conception and implementation"
That's a lot of qualifiers. More specifically, let's look at the most recent data from the International Displacement Monitoring Centre:

This is Plan Colombia in action--it created a disaster along Syrian lines for millions of Colombians, but they just don't get much attention. President Alvaro Uribe, who was largely responsible for implementing it after he took office in 2002, is a thug who oversaw major human rights violations, and is currently under house arrest for bribing members of paramilitaries so that he wouldn't be implicated for his involvement with them.

I understand fully that Plan Colombia served to ramp up the government's side in the civil war, and as a result it was able to weaken the FARC sufficiently to force it to negotiate, which stabilized the country. I am not trying to pretend that didn't happen. But it definitely needs to be seen as only side of a violent coin.


Monday, August 10, 2020

Trump's Latin America Nominees Are Bad in the Same Way

Not long ago, I wrote about how Trump pick for Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Carlos Trujillo, was a bad choice. Now Chris Sabatini wrote what is like a companion piece, namely that Trump's pick to head the Inter-American Development Bank, Mauricio Claver-Crone, is a terrible choice.

Plus, they are terrible in almost exactly the same ways. They are Marco Rubio-groomed ideologues with no experience, chosen solely with Florida electoral votes in mind. They are obsessed with Cuba and Venezuela, and can't seem to concentrate much on anything else.

The White House’s nomination of Mauricio Claver-Carone seems certainly informed by domestic politics — part of its strategy to win Florida’s 29 electoral votes in November. Currently the senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council, Claver-Carone’s previous experience was running a one-man lobbying shop for the U.S.-Cuba embargo. The underqualified candidate owes his meteoric rise from relative obscurity to his benefactor, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — though the senator’s patronage twice failed to get him appointed as assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, raising the question of why he should be in charge of a regional development institution at a time of unprecedented economic and social distress in Latin America.

These are important jobs at any time, but especially now. Latin America is in crisis, and political hacks are just not the way to go. They seem guaranteed to focus on all the wrong things.


Sunday, August 09, 2020

Jorge Castañeda's America through Foreign Eyes

I read Jorge Castañeda's America through Foreign Eyes, and since I was asked to review it, I will keep this brief and let you click on that when it's ready for clicking. Castañeda knows the U.S. very well, and is in a good position to tell us something about ourselves. And he clearly likes the U.S. a lot.

The one point that the average American would do well to take from this book is the dangerous absurdity of exceptionalism. We think we're exceptional when we're not, often creating our beliefs by conveniently leaving out key facts. I mean, don't talk about democracy and equality unless you explicitly say you mean only whites. Castañeda, like so many others, is frustrated by these beliefs and sees them as an obstacle to Americans themselves.

I will also say that Castañeda is optimistic about how we can change. He often seemed more optimistic than me. So I hope the outsider view is getting something I am missing.


Monday, August 03, 2020

Rubio's Influence on Latin America Policy: Much Ado About Nothing?

Interesting article in Politico about Marco Rubio's influence on Latin America policy, like the reference to him as the "virtual Secretary of State for Latin America." But something nagged me. Something seemed a but off about the influence. I mean, he's clearly influential, but...what? It finally crystallized as I thought about what Latin America policy would be like if Marco Rubio had no influence.

The answer is barely different.

He is viewed as having outsized influence on Venezuela and Cuba policy and keeping the administration centered on them. Makes sense. But in Venezuela, he's not getting what he wants, which is TPS and more interest in a military solution. He gets the oil embargo, I guess, but people like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo would've wanted that too. For Cuba, he's just getting establishment Republican policy, which would've been identical no matter what. Roll back Obama, love the embargo, no dialogue.

He's seen as contributing to ignoring the rest of Latin America, especially Mexico. Well, OK, except that for Trump, U.S. policy toward Mexico is driven from within the White House and would've been like that no matter what. Remember how Kushner ignored the State Department and everybody else. Further, Trump doesn't care about the rest of Latin America, so I wonder whether anyone could've convinced him otherwise. Trump likes Rubio's obsession with Cuba and Venezuela because it's about his own re-election, and he doesn't care about Latin America policy not related to re-election. Do you really think that absent Rubio, Trump would care about South America? He insults Colombia, our strongest ally, all the time, and that's not because of Marco.

This bring me to my next point. Rubio has been successful in getting his acolytes appointed to policy positions. I recently wrote about Carlos Trujillo in Global Americans. For Rubio, "personnel is policy," according to his office, and he pursues it with petty abandon. But in the Trump administration, the adage isn't true. Trump doesn't care what State Department officials say. However, they do have an impact on bilateral relations on the ground, and so can easily worsen them by showing ignorance about regional issues. I don't know if that's been the case or not.

This is all one big counterfactual. Would there be dramatic differences if Marco Rubio were not involved so deeply? He's got influence, but how much does it matter except for his ego and his cronies?


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