Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Alicia Giménez Bartlett's Prime Time Suspect

Alicia Giménez-Bartlett's Prime Time Suspect is a murder mystery set in Barcelona, with police inspector Petra Delicado. This is part of a series, some of which has been translated into English. She and her police partner go into the sordid world of celebrities and tabloids in Barcelona and Madrid.

I liked it a lot, as there is great interplay between the two characters, ruminating on solitude, marriage, and relationships while investigating. There is even discussion of women in the police force as they trace a string of related murders. Their boss is a bit of stereotype of the screaming Chief Inspector, but the characters interact well.

I bought it because I am in Barcelona now for the Latin American Studies Association conference, so it's fun seeing the characters moving around where I've been visiting.

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Monday, May 21, 2018

Venezuela Has No Path Forward

The official results according to the Consejo Nacional Electoral:

Nicolás Maduro: 67.7%
Henri Falcon: 21.2%
Javier Alejandro Bertucci: 15.9%
Reinaldo José Quijada Cerdone: 0.4%
Turnout: 46.1%

Turnout in the 2013 presidential election was about 80%. Reporters yesterday showed a lot of empty polling places in Caracas, as many disillusioned Venezuelans stayed home.

What now? Well, nothing. The results came quickly, so there was no obvious sign of internal discontent or military rumblings. The core of the regime is holding up so there will be no change. Maduro clearly has no plans--his many speeches talk of transformations and revolutions that have no form or substance. The economy is crashing and he is mostly just watching it, spending reserves as he sinks more into a morass of debt. Oil production has been falling for a long time and although increasing prices (which may go up more thanks to Trump's Venezuela policy) give him a lifeline, they can only take him so far.

If elections do not function democratically (Geoff Ramsey at WOLA has a nice summary of all the problems), the regime is reasonably united while the opposition is not, the military is either loyal or deserting, and dialogue achieves nothing, then there is little to be done. The certain response is enhanced sanctions, but they will mostly immiserate the Venezuelan population.

The most likely outcome is more poverty, more blustering, more emigration, more suffering and disease. Regime insiders will get rich. Maybe the military becomes discontent enough to force change but there is no sign of that now.

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Saturday, May 19, 2018

Latin American Agency

Agency is an issue I've come back to regularly over the years, and which I preach in my U.S.-Latin American Relations course. Given the power and influence of the United States, combined with a history of intervention, it becomes tempting to view Latin American politics as always reacting and responding to the United States.

We need to resist that temptation.

For example, in this news article by Alfredo Corchado, several analysts argue that Donald Trump is a driving force of support for AMLO in the Mexican election. Patrick Iber is one person who pushes back on that:

Patrick Iber, assistant professor of Latin American history at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, said Lopez Obrador is "drawing on a strong tradition in Mexican foreign policy of respect for the sovereignty of the internal affairs of other nations.... If AMLO is elected, some will say he, like Trump, fits in to the global rise of 'populism.' Others will say he was elected as a reaction against Trump's rhetoric of wall-building and Mexican criminality. But neither will be all that accurate: AMLO is not new to the Mexican scene, nor is he all that much more popular than he was twelve years ago. Support for him has much more to do with the problems of previous Mexican administrations than it does with anything happening in the United States."

Exactly. Mexicans are responding to the problematic and corrupt history of the PRI and the failure of the PAN to generate support. AMLO would likely be doing well even if Barack Obama were still president.

The question of agency always hangs over Venezuela, where apologists deny a lot of Venezuelan agency. Instead, Venezuelan polarization is framed by U.S. policy. I totally agree that Trump's policies are not productive, but the Venezuelan government is responsible for what's going on. Venezuelan misery predated Donald Trump and would still be there no matter who was president in the U.S.

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Thursday, May 17, 2018

Press Freedom in Ecuador

After years of harassment and intimidation, journalists in Ecuador are seeing a positive change under Lenín Moreno.

Ecuadorian investigative journalist Daniela Aguilar de la Torre discussed what it means to have Moreno as president. 
“Recently, there has been more of a movement toward freedom of the press,” Aguilar said. “But there is still an anti-press freedom law. It is difficult to report on public officials, especially in small cities, where the same censorship that existed in the Correa regime is still maintained." 
Under President Rafael Correa, journalists faced 10 years of targeted attacks with the aid of the communications law. Correa sued journalists and media outlets and would verbally attack newspapers on his live TV show every Saturday. These lawsuits created financial strain on outlets that turned to self-censorship as a way to stop future claims. 

Attacks on the media constitute one of the biggest threats to democracy the world collectively faces, including the United States, where the President of the United States routinely makes wild and inaccurate accusations against news agencies that dare to question him.

Coincidentally, Maxwell Cameron just published an article in Latin American Politics & Society on defective democracies in the Andes. He makes the case that Moreno's election and break with Rafael Correa means that we cannot say Ecuador is an electoral authoritarian system, which it appeared to be heading toward under Correa.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Larry Tye's Satchel

For a long time I had meant to read a biography of Satchel Paige, who I didn't know much of substance about. Larry Tye's Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend did not disappoint. It showed what a heroic and tragic figure he was, and how important for the game.

Of course, the book is framed by the Jim Crow South and how Satchel navigated it. Spurned later by Jackie Robinson, Satchel felt he should get more credit for being at the forefront of integration, actually playing with whites in games and getting the respect of fellow barnstormers Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller, both white baseball legends. He played everywhere and for anyone who would pay him, pitching constantly and often drawing white crowds. At the same time, like all African American players he had to find safe houses to sleep in and black restaurants to eat in. In many respects, he and other Negro League stars paved the way for Jackie.

He chased money constantly and Tye is careful to show how that sometimes was unethical (like skipping contracts) but that most often it was Satchel showing that he was worth money and therefore wasn't going to be pushed around because of his skin color. He made tons of money in his career, though he squandered most of it. Later in life the chasing became sad, as he was invited to hotels and ordered room service and liquor to bring home because he was out of cash.

His family life was complicated and also sometimes terrible--he was married to two women at one time at one point and one of them eventually committed suicide. He left a trail of women and at least one child he never knew. He had a lot of children and tended to be uneven in raising them. His third wife stayed with him until the end, when his health and spirits failed him.

The baseball part is incredible. He pitched as an old man in the majors and did pretty well. As an MLB rookie in his 40s he still threw bullets. We have few records because no one recorded the vast majority of his games, but he was one of the best pitchers ever. Tye captures him well.

BTW, you can listen to Tye talk about the book on the excellent Baseball by the Book podcast.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Quitting And Diplomacy in US-Mexico Relations

Mexico's Minister of the Economy, Ildefonso Guajardo, gave an interview to talk about the NAFTA negotiations. Part of it was to say there would not be an agreement before Thursday as Paul Ryan demanded if he was going to be able to get Congress to vote on it this year.

But another part of it is deeper and more indicative of the Trump administration's entire approach to negotiations anywhere in the world. Guajardo was unhappy about the U.S. insistence on a sunset clause, through which any of the countries could simply pull out after a five year period. His point was that you cannot ask businesses to change their models when they have only a five year guarantee of it functioning.

The idea of quitting agreements seems now to be a hallmark of the administration, but it does not offer anything concrete in their place. The Iran deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership are of course two other major examples. With the TPP, Trump suddenly did a semi about-face that just left everyone more confused. The administration claimed it had a deal with Brazil on tariffs, but Brazil disagreed.

If you cannot commit to anything and in fact try to strike deals that allow you to leave them quickly, then you foster uncertainty and distrust. Why would North Korea accept any binding deal with the United States after watching it pull out of the Iran deal? There is no reason for North Korea to conceded anything. At this point the United States is acting like it does not trust its own negotiations so that it will not commit to sticking to them.

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Why Calling For A Venezuelan Coup Is A Bad Idea

Calls in the U.S., both within and outside the government, for a coup in Venezuela are increasing and pretty much mainstream. The most recent is Roger Noriega in The New York Times. I've written before that this is a bad idea. Brian Fonseca writes in Foreign Policy about why it would be damage U.S. security interests:

The U.S. officials praising the prospect of a military takeover seem to disregard the fact that U.S.-Venezuelan military relations are virtually nonexistent today. U.S. defense contacts with Venezuela declined sharply in the years following the rise of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in 1999. Meanwhile, the Russians, Chinese, and Cubans have replaced the United States as the primary sources of financial, technical, and material support to the Venezuelan military. The mere threat of a coup in Venezuela could be enough to rally the military around hard-liners and compel U.S. rivals to consider their preferred alternatives to the Maduro regime as collapse becomes imminent. Rivals with economic, political, and geostrategic interests in Venezuela, such as Russia and China, are far better positioned than the United States to influence the Venezuelan military during any transition.

This is a point no one has been making. The United States has no influence over the Venezuelan military and can only guess about what its leadership thinks (Noriega talks vaguely of talking to "regime insiders," which we should dismiss along with all other anonymous claims). Russians and Cubans in particular have been there for years (whereas China's influence is financial rather than military).

Venezuela is suffering but doing dumb things can make the situation worse than the status quo. As President Obama said several years ago with regard to foreign policy, "Don't do stupid shit." In Latin America, the U.S. government seems almost addicted to doing so.

BTW, Brian is going to be on a roundtable on security I organized for the Latin American Studies Association conference next week if you are interested in joining us.

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Monday, May 14, 2018

India Optimizes Engagement By Reducing The Deficit, Or Something Like That

The Vice President of India will be visiting three Latin American countries in an effort to boost trade ties. Here are his inspiring words.


"India's sub-optimal engagement with these three countries is to a large extent due to high-level contact deficit."

This is semi-robotic in tone. Anyway, he is going to better optimize engagement by reducing the deficit. Now, which three countries will be so optimized? First, the criteria.

The vice president explained that the three Latin American countries offered significant opportunities for India given their high level of engagement with the US and the other North and South American economies through regional arrangements and free trade agreements, besides being logistic and financial hubs in the region.

In short, you choose countries not because they are important per se, but rather because they are conduits to something else. This finally means the choices make sense because otherwise they would be head scratchers: Guatemala, Panama, and Peru. These are not what you call powerhouses, but the first two offer CAFTA connection and the latter MERCOSUR. Panama itself is a financial center through which all kinds of money flows. Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela welcomed his country's role as doorway.

"Panama has put its geographical position at India's disposal to become its gate to the rest of the region, as a hub for logistics and air connectivity," Varela said during a joint press conference with Naidu, Efe reported.

This is quite different from China's approach, which is to swoop in and fill the vacuum left by the United States. India is trying to leverage the remaining U.S. ties rather than fill the void. Either way, Latin American leaders are nervous about the U.S. pulling out of the region and are eager for new global partners, or for the renewal of past ones.

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Friday, May 11, 2018

Iran Sanctions Are Great for Nicolas Maduro

Bank of America Merrill Lynch is the first bank to say that Iran sanctions raise the risk of oil going back to $100/barrel. Not for the first time, poorly conceived U.S. policy in the Middle East gives a big boost to an adversarial government in Latin America. George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq was a godsend to Hugo Chávez, who built his entire economic policy on the skyrocketing price of oil that ensued.

It's no panacea for a government awash in corruption, debt, and mismanagement. But it can garner much needed resources (in euros or even in yuan maybe, I don't know) to at least stanch the immediate bleeding.

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Thursday, May 10, 2018

Latin American Politics Links

Here are some things for you to read:


  • Both Boz and Mike Allison look at the accusation that CICIG is a Russian plot in Guatemala. I don't know what game Marco Rubio is playing here, but it's bad for Guatemalan democracy. CICIG was one of the few bright spots and now it's the target of crazy conspiracy theories.
  • Adam Isacson has a whole bunch of stuff to say about the Colombian peace process. He covers incompetence, corruption, and discrimination, but other than that everything is rosy.
  • Francisco Toro reminds us that the Venezuelan opposition is #@@$&ing clueless. The election will therefore be a disaster.
  • Royce Murray at Immigration Impact writes about the horrible story of the State Department telling DHS in strong language not to end TPS for El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti because of how destabilizing it would be. People's lives are not considered particularly important.
  • Simeon Tegel writes at Americas Quarterly about how the Peruvian left is in disarray. Some crazy people actually want Abimael Guzmán freed. Somehow this is framed in terms of reconciliation. 
Next time maybe I'll try to find good news.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Mike Pence Tells Latin American Leaders We Need Hardline CIA Director

Mike Pence gave a speech to the OAS a few days ago and most media attention was on his call for suspending the Venezuelan presidential election and for sanctioning three more Venezuelan officials. I would like to focus on something else that came earlier in the speech (see the full text here). In a speech to Latin American leaders, who are suspicious of U.S. motives and aware of a troubled history of intervention, the Vice President of the United States started talking about the need to confirm a hardliner as Director of the CIA.

And that’s why it’s crucial, as I gather before you today, to note that it’s crucial that the United States Senate confirm President Trump’s nominee to be Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Gina Haspel. 
Gina Haspel — who I’ve come to know personally — is a leader of unparalleled experience in the Central Intelligence Agency.  She’s dedicated her life to protecting our nation.  And when confirmed, Gina Haspel will be the first director to have spent her career serving in the CIA, and she’s be the first woman to fill that critical position.  She has the confidence of the President and our entire team.  And as the President said earlier today, she’s not only a highly respected nominee but she is among the most qualified that will ever serve in that role. 
Sadly, some are still playing politics with her nomination, even though her bipartisan support has been overwhelming.  As I speak to you today, Gina Haspel enjoys the support of former CIA directors from past administrations representing both political parties, including Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and Michael Hayden.  And today, we call on the United States Senate to put the safety and security of the American people first and confirm Gina Haspel as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency as soon as possible.

What genius stuck that in there? First of all, don't ever talk about the CIA in an OAS speech. Further, in a region with a history of U.S.-supported torture, he is talking to these leaders about someone who ran a black-site prison where torture was employed! I wonder what they were thinking when they heard this. Quite possibly about how useful it would be to start learning Chinese.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Venezuela Military Desertions

Bloomberg  has a story about the rising number of soldiers deserting from the Venezuelan military.

But the level of desertion from the Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana has grown exponentially in the last year, especially among troops at lower ranks. At least 10,000 soldiers have asked to retire, Control Ciudadano’s San Miguel said in March.

There's not much on this in Spanish but you can get bits and pieces from Twitter.

This strikes me as potentially quite important. The Maduro government needs the military to keep it propped up. The biggest threat to him is military discontent, just as Hugo Chávez own discontent led him to rebel against his superiors in 1992. But to borrow from Albert Hirschman, if soldiers choose exit (or of course loyalty) over voice, then that works to Maduro's advantage, or at least not to his detriment.

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Monday, May 07, 2018

Baseball Uniforms and U.S.-Mexican Relations

Regular readers know I am a big baseball fan and particularly a fan of the San Diego Padres, which I've followed since I was tiny. This past weekend they played a series in Monterrey, Mexico. I was listening to the radio broadcast of the game yesterday and heard a quick but interesting exchange between announcers Jesse Agler and Ted Leitner about the Padres uniforms. On home Sundays the Padres normally wear camouflage-style jerseys as a way to honor the large military presence in San Diego. I am not a fan of this practice, because while I am happy to honor that presence in some manner, the militaristic tone mixed with baseball bothers me. But we can set that aside for now.

Jesse Agler had gotten a question about why the Padres didn't have on those uniforms since it was a Sunday and they were considered the home team (even though they were in Mexico). The answer, which he also posted on Twitter, was smart and true--it is a bad idea to have such a militaristic uniform in a foreign country. Kudos to both announcers for emphasizing that it's even worse right now because U.S.-Mexican relations are strained, and kudos to Ted for taking that a step further and lamenting how we've alienated our close ally. He let that one drop and then said he should stop with the politics.

These were smart answers and I would've loved it had they just quickly added that the United States has invaded Mexico multiple times and even taken a large chunk of it, which makes the military emphasis exponentially more problematic.

Lastly, MLB is consciously trying to market the game globally. The U.S. use of force abroad is not popular and the militaristic uniforms do MLB no favors as it tries to encourage more foreign interest.

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Friday, May 04, 2018

Shadow Venezuelan Supreme Court

OAS chief Luis Almagro recognized the decision of the exiled shadow Venezuelan Supreme Court to suspend the presidency of Nicolás Maduro. My first reaction is that this is pretty meaningless--you can call yourself whatever you want and make any decision you want but without any legitimacy or power it doesn't matter. I don't think Almagro has the support or stature to increase that legitimacy.

Some have argued that in conjunction with a shadow legislature it could gain legitimacy, especially by reducing international support for the government and reassuring people that regime change would not mean a political vacuum. I don't feel particularly convinced.

Further, having this shadow body meet and emit a decision in Miami is terrible optics. It reinforces the easily made argument that all such actions are being directed by the United States government and ideologically extreme exiles.

Finally, the opposition has no leader, which means that if it were to take power we have no idea who would be president. Therefore we also have no idea who that person would want in the Supreme Court. Chances that the choices would coincide with the shadow version aren't so high.

If am missing something here, feel free to let me know.

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The Impact of Mexicans Voting Abroad

The Christian Science Monitor has a piece on Mexicans voting abroad, an issue that has been getting more coverage. All of these pieces are speculative. Simply in terms of numbers, voters abroad "could" have a big impact. Recent history casts some doubt on this.

If we look back at the 2012 presidential election, 40,714 voted out of only 59,115 registered, which is 69%. The results themselves were interesting:

Josefina Vázquez Mota 42.17%
AMLO 39%
Enrique Peña Nieto 15.62%

This is a heterogeneous group but in general it is bad news for the PRI.

For the 2006 election, 40,876 were registered and 32,621 voted, which is 79.8%. The PRI won 4.17%, the PAN won 58.29% and AMLO 34%.

On the face of it, then, we should expect a continued gradual rise in voting abroad but no sudden shift. Here is one counterargument:

But a recent reform allowing voters to renew their required IDs at Mexican Consulates and register to vote online could be a game-changer in this year’s race. As of April, more than half a million voter IDs have been delivered to Mexicans abroad, and close to 670,000 requests for IDs have been made.
Could be, but you still have to mail your ballot in. Either way, based on past results the PRI will be hurt. If this really surges, then the PRI is just hurt worse.

Right now, polls have AMLO at 47.8%, Ricardo Anaya at 29.9%, and José Antonio Meade at 16.7%. We should expect the vote abroad to help give Anaya a but of a boost but AMLO will still be strong.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Can Evo Let Go?

Really interesting article in Americas Quarterly about discontent among Evo Morales supporters about his insistence on staying in office. Bolivians are grateful to how he has changed the country but that is not the same as wanting him in power forever.

Yet despite these achievements, many in El Alto are turning against the president — specifically, his efforts to seek an unprecedented fourth term in office. In February, El Alto residents joined in protests demanding that Morales respect a 2016 referendum in which voters rejected changing the constitution to do away with term limits. Many carried signs declaring “No means no” and “Respect my vote.”

Morales has achieved a lot. He could well be the most successful president in the country's unstable history. He has empowered the indigenous population, stabilized the economy with prudent policies, and reduced inequality.

At this point his legacy hinges on whether he can stomach standing down democratically or whether he clings to power. Unfortunately, the examples in Colombia and Ecuador may give him pause. In both cases, presidents gave up on the possibility of staying in office but anointed a successor who presumably would walk in their footsteps. That did not happen in either case, where the new presidents went aggressively in the opposite direction, fostering deep, personal, and Twitterized splits.

Ultimately, though, Evo Morales is the main obstacle to his own legacy. Gradually increasing authoritarianism to keep yourself in power does not tend to work out well. You alienate your own supporters and undermine your own cause. Presidents cannot stand the idea of having someone from the other side of the ideological spectrum taking over through an election, but that's just how democracy work.s

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