Sunday, April 22, 2018

UNASUR on the Rocks

Half of the countries of UNASUR announced they were suspending their membership until the crisis of "rudderless" leadership was resolved. There is currently no Secretary General, which must be decided by consensus.

Responses are almost entirely ideological. Nicolás Maduro said unnamed "revolutionaries" would protect UNASUR (whatever that means for an international institution). An editorial in Ecuador's El Comercio made fun of the Kirchner statue erected in UNASUR headquarters and wondered whether there were better uses of money. The Uruguayan right argued there was on point in staying in UNASUR. The Kirchnerists in Argentina are upset. Leftists think this is all about pressure from the United States.

You get the picture.

A major question for UNASUR was always whether it could get out of the ideological shadow of its creator, Hugo Chávez. I thought it was, even if haltingly, though I had not paid much attention to it over the past year. Latin American unity is elusive, as I've written about before. Can governments at different ends of the ideological spectrum find consensus (without driving each other crazy?).

It would be good for the region if UNASUR recovers. It's good to have a forum for dialogue and conflict resolution without the presence of the United States. It's good to foster cooperation even when governments are polar ideological opposites. There must be some centrist figure out there who would fit the bill of Secretary General.


Saturday, April 21, 2018

Review of James Comey's A Higher Loyalty

I read James Comey's A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership (2018) and if you're looking for new details, you won't find them there. And in fact it's not the point of the book at all. Instead, it's an examination of leadership, where naturally Donald Trump falls quite obviously and publicly short.

It is a very human book, with Comey talking about his background (with some harrowing personal details I did not know about, such as being threatened by a serial rapist and the death of his infant son) and trying to explain how he developed his style of leadership based on people who had been leaders for him when he was young, especially the manager of the grocery store where he worked as a teenager. I liked these parts, as they seemed genuine (he takes pains to show his own doubts and imperfections) and smart.

Then of course there are the decisions he made about Hillary Clinton's emails. He talks about all the different ways a reasonable person could have addressed the new group of emails that came from Anthony Weiner's computer right before the 2016 election (and frankly, all I could think of as I did at the time was how disgusting it was that an asshole like Wiener could have affected an election). Comey doesn't ask you to agree--he just asks you to think about all the possible and very limited alternatives.

Lastly, there is Trump himself. He is everything we already know. Self-serving, narcissistic, and most importantly insecure. He cannot handle the truth, so to speak, and Comey compares him to the mafia bosses he investigated and prosecuted early in his career in New York. Trump needs personal loyalty and lackeys since he is too insecure or emotionally immature to handle push back or contradiction. Comey's whole point is that the truth is our higher loyalty, and it is something Donald Trump consciously rejects.


Friday, April 20, 2018

World Bank Says Latin America Is Growing

The World Bank released a report saying that Latin American economies are recovering and growth will be stronger in 2018 and 2019. Here is the executive summary and here is the full report. To anyone who studies Latin America at all, it will sound familiar and for the many years I've done this blog I have written more posts than I can count about World Bank, IMF, and CEPAL economic projections. Growth goes up and down, but two things stay constant: reliance on global commodity prices and debt. Latin America needs to move away from commodities and reduce debt. It has been thus forever and there is no end in sight.

Their advice is measured and should once again make us wary of the vague term "neoliberal."

In terms of short-run costs, we draw several important conclusions from our empirical analysis. First, 85 percent of the 136 fiscal adjustment episodes that we identify in the region for the period 1960-2017 have involved only cuts in government spending, as opposed to 4 percent involving only tax hikes (the remaining 11 percent involved both). While this is, in principle, good public policy (especially if it is feasible to cut unproductive government spending), we show that the short-run costs of raising taxes (specifically, value-added taxes) are highly non linear: costs are essentially zero for low initial levels of the tax rate (around 10-12 percent) and quite substantial for high initial levels (above 20 percent). Hence, low-taxation countries may actually find it in their best interest to raise taxes as part of a fiscal adjustment rather than cutting public investment or reducing social transfers (particularly to the most vulnerable). Second, the shortrun output costs of reducing primary spending are also non-linear (i.e., marginal costs increase with the size of spending cuts), which makes a strong case for gradual versus shock fiscal adjustments. Finally, even when policymakers should be careful not to rely too heavily on cutting public investment, it should not be done at the cost of reducing social transfers which are found to have important costs on both output and poverty.

The disaster of structural adjustment and shock therapy in the 1980s is now permanently ingrained and the real advances that social spending has achieved is recognized as valuable and important.

As a side note, the Venezuela numbers look very much like the Cuban Special Period. Almost identical. As you might guess, the report shows projections both including and excluding Venezuela because it cannot be fruitfully part of any average.


Thursday, April 19, 2018

Reorienting the Latin American Left

Great interview in The Nation of Gustavo Petro. In particular, he talks about reorienting the Latin American left.

There’d be a change in axis. Latin American progressivism used to revolve around the Havana-Caracas-Buenos Aires-Managua axis. That was an old progressivism, and I don’t think it gave us any solutions. It revolved around oil and coal, Havana included, since it aligned with Venezuela to get oil. It has since fallen apart, and while it was falling apart, neoliberalism got a second wind and began winning elections in Argentina, Peru, and other countries. But I don’t think that it’s lasted long yet—except in Colombia, where it always has been. Take a look at crisis in Peru, what is happening in Mexico, even in Brazil—they needed a coup to take down Lula.

The existence of the FARC prevented any moderate left from gaining traction in Colombia, and the silver lining there is that Petro has a blank political slate to work with. Eventually the Venezuelan left will face a similar situation since the Chavista left is being discredited.

He provides no details about how to move away from extractionism, and of course even Nicolás Maduro talks about it while doing nothing, but it's still important to begin with a goal of changing how the left views the economy.

It will be an axis that sees the transformations of Latin America toward a productive economy, and not one based the extraction of resources. We aren’t going to be primary exporters, as we have been for five centuries. We can also be an intentional society and produce on the basis of knowledge. 

I am not sure what he means here by "producing on the basis of knowledge." He has said this before.

“Over the last 30 years, Colombia has exported oil, coal and cocaine,” he said. “I don’t see how this benefits humanity. I want to export food and knowledge-intensive industrial products.”

Perhaps he means high tech. Regardless, it shows a recognition that the Venezuelan and Argentine models had serious problems and should not be copied. A reorientation is what the Latin American left needs right now if it is to win votes again in more countries and carry on its core goal of reducing inequality.


Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Context of the Paraguayan Presidential Election

This is a guest post.

Samuel Fishman lives in Paraguay where he teaches English with an English Teaching Assistant Fulbright grant from the U.S. Department of State. He graduated from Tulane University with a B.A. in Political Economy. He is originally from Baltimore, Maryland. .

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the political protests that reverberated through Paraguay on March 31st of last year. On that day, thousands of Paraguayans of all ages and political stripes took to the streets of the capital city Asunción and throughout the nation. Over the course of the chaotic night the national Congress building was lit on fire by demonstrators and a young protester was shot and killed by police. In spite of the violence however, over the course of this year the protests have showed themselves to have a number of durable effects, most notably a dramatic increase in youth political involvement and the strengthening of local independent media outlets. These two effects will be critical factors when Paraguayans go to the polls this Sunday to choose their next president.

The demonstrations were a response to a proposed constitutional amendment to allow Presidents to seek re-election, which is verboten by the national constitution. Opposition to the amendment stemmed from two objections, once substantive and one procedural. South America’s longest continuous dictatorship ended in Paraguay in 1989, so Paraguayans remain skeptical of any strengthening of executive power. On the procedural side, the amendment (enmienda) emerged from a secret closed-doors session of the Paraguayan Senate, and received support from traditional bitter political rivals from the two largest political parties. These strange bedfellows were seen as cooperating for self-serving political strategy; both parties stand to gain from extended term limits.

However, it appears that backlash to the enmienda triggered some positive changes. Historically, levels of youth engagement in Paraguayan politics have been low. A recent survey by the Centro de Información y Recursos para elDesarrollo showed that thirty-four percent of respondents believe many young people do not vote due to a lack of interest in politics and elections. Yet, a series of growing youth mobilization efforts following the enmienda suggests March 31st marked a turning point of sorts. Ever since, the streets have flooded with massive youth-led non-violent demonstrations to raise awareness for women's rights, LGBT rights, the environment, and other progressive causes. Notably, these events often unite trabajdores, empleadas, universitarios, campesinos and many disparate groups into broad, inclusive coalitions.

Clearly, the enmienda counter-protests spurred increased youth political engagement. However, other parts of civil society were also affected, namely, the media. The mainstream Paraguayan media has long been dominated by a handful of brazenly partisan newspapers, some of the largest of which are owned by the outgoing multibillionaire President Horacio Cartes. As the night´s events unfolded, citizens spurned traditional media outlets and increasingly turned to social media and independent media for crucial real time information. As I huddled with a group of university students, they ignored the talking heads blaring from a nearby car radio, and refreshed Twitter for updates. On the other hand, alternative media outlets were thrust into the spotlight with innovative coverage techniques. These sources racked up tens of thousands of views with Facebook Live streams of Congressional debate, shot on personal cell phones. Online streams of the burning Congress building and bloodied opposition politicians immediately went viral, dramatically increasing the viewership of independent media outlets.

Throughout Latin America, as nations have transitioned from dictatorships to democracies, many have struggled with “flexible” term limits for heads of state. A series of countries including Venezuela, Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Ecuador have lifted presidential term limits. In Paraguay however, citizen outcry was strong enough that the controversial enmienda was retracted and the executive term limit remains in force. When Paraguayans go to the polls this Sunday to choose their next president, the politically empowered Paraguayan youth and the strengthened independent media will play a critical role. University students are organizing on-campus debates between candidates while new media sources are using YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp memes, and other web platforms to broadcast information about the election directly to voters. While the enmienda project itself failed, one year later its political legacy later remains strong. These two factors, youth involvement and independent media, could play a deciding role in this Sunday’s presidential election and the future of Paraguayan politics.


Wilbur Ross on Latin America

Voice of America published an interview with U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. It's an unsurprisingly disheartening interview because it's so wooden and false.

--When asked about Argentina increasing trade with China because of Donald Trump's trade war, he says:

we are exploring all sorts of things, bilateral things, things that Argentina can sell us, and things that we can sell Argentina.

Things. That clears it all up.

--On Venezuela

Venezuela is abusing its population and that is not a satisfactory thing to happen. 

Strong words!

--And then a real, honest-to-goodness whopper.

So we are going to try to facilitate that, an example is the gesture that the United States made through Vice President Pence. I hope that people understand what it is. We are sharing the hardship with them of the refugees that have come out of Venezuela.

Holy smokes. There are about 600,000 Venezuelan refugees in Colombia alone. There is no sense in Latin America of shared hardship.


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Ken Godwin

Ken Godwin passed away on Sunday, April 15. Here is our department statement.

The Department of Political Science and Public Administration is sad to announce that Dr. Ken Godwin passed away on Sunday, April 15. From 2001 until he ended phased retirement in 2013, Dr. Godwin was the Marshall A. Rausch Distinguished Professor of Public Policy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1972 and over his career he published 12 books as well as over 70 journal articles and book chapters. He was highly respected both professionally and personally in the department. His funeral will be held Thursday, April 19, at 2:00 p.m. at Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to Crisis Assistance Ministry at

This comes as a shock to all of us. Ken was smart, perceptive, blunt, and helpful to everyone. I sought his advice numerous times, especially since he had served as department chair before coming to UNC Charlotte. It's been a somber day here. Hard to say much more than that right now.


Change in Cuba

The U.S. commentariat on the right tends to argue that change isn't happening in Cuba, generally to justify criticism of President Obama's normalization of relations. This article in Dissent is a leftist view of the actually radical economic changes taking place and how much controversy it is generating among Cubans.

When Raúl Castro succeeded his brother, official policy substantially shifted. Raúl Castro’s government shelved the Battle of Ideas, set in motion large-scale layoffs in the state sector, and encouraged the expansion, within limits, of private businesses. A small number of Cubans were able to take advantage of the more favorable atmosphere to push the boundaries of what was possible, legally and illegally. With money from relatives in Miami, or embezzled from the state, the new rich opened large, garish restaurants, bought properties to operate upscale Airbnbs, ran small and not-so-small import operations. Many flaunted their newfound affluence.

Capitalism and inequality go hand in hand, and Cuba is experiencing that now. Those with access love it, those without lament the betrayal of the revolution. The article shows how the Trump administration's policies are squeezing people once again. The problem, an age old one, is that U.S. policy makers believe that hurting the average Cuban will help bring about political reform. Instead, what it really causes is emigration.

Although Cubans across the board tell me they are disaffected, it is very unlikely they will act collectively, much less take to the streets. Cubans’ traditional form of resistance is to leave. Now leaving is more difficult than it was before President Obama ended the immigration program designed to lure Cubans to the United States, and before President Trump dramatically downsized the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Nevertheless, Cubans continue to plot ways to emigrate. For decades, leaving has been the escape valve that prevented Cuba’s pressure cooker from exploding.

What should we take from all this? Isolating Cuba is proven not to achieve U.S. policy goals. Especially given the historic political transition that will soon take place, the U.S. should be ready to engage. Nothing else has worked. Change is indeed happening and the U.S. should not be punishing Cubans as it occurs.


Monday, April 16, 2018

The Summit of the Americas and Venezuela

Here is the Venezuelan opposition summary of how Venezuela was treated during the Summit of the Americas. It can easily be taken as weak, with talk of "solving the crisis themselves" and focusing more on humanitarian assistance than on condemning repression and calling for release of political prisoners, allowing candidates to run in the election, etc.

On the other hand, it's rare to see even this much public consensus that the political situation in a Latin American country is dire. Half the countries did sign a declaration condemning the breakdown of constitutional order and although there will be some hardcore opposition, I can see that number gradually increasing if no solution is reached, especially as the emigration problem increases.

In large part because of the history of U.S. policy, Latin America is deeply suspicious of intervention. There is always a lot of hesitance no matter the ideological orientation. Overcoming that is no small feat and is delicate, which also means that given Donald Trump's current tirades against James Comey, his attendance could easily have been counterproductive.


Saturday, April 14, 2018

Fading Luster of the Summit of the Americas

The Peruvian newspaper El Comercio notes how many presidents decided not to attend the Summit of the Americas. In addition to the United States, there was Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Paraguay. Lenín Moreno came briefly and then returned to Ecuador. And of course Nicolás Maduro was not invited. It is worth noting that these countries are not ideologically similar.

The question going forward is whether Trump has helped accelerate a process of disinterest in the summit altogether. Already, the summit's original purpose of free trade has been badly undermine by the United States, to the point that Latin American countries don't have any idea where he stands (rejoin the TPP? Destroy NAFTA? Trade war?).

Remember the first summit in 1994 with its statement about "the Americas are united in pursuing prosperity through open markets, hemispheric integration, and sustainable develoment"? Trump does not believe in any of those three things and has made it clear he is not interested in having the U.S. play a leadership role in the hemisphere. It would be natural for leaders to wonder what the whole point is.


Thursday, April 12, 2018

Podcast Episode 51: Political Decentralization in Latin America Can Kill Parties

In Episode 51 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast I talk with Jana Morgan (on Twitter too), who is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Tennessee and a Visiting Scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation. She works on inequality, exclusion and representation. She explores how economic, social and political inequalities affect marginalized groups and undermine democratic processes and outcomes. She recently published an article in Latin American Research Review (click here for the open access full text) on political decentralization and party decay in Latin America, and that’s what we talked about. I couldn’t help bringing the United States into the conversation as well.


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Review of Levitsky and Ziblatt's How Democracies Die

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt's How Democracies Die (2018) is two political scientists writing a comparative historical analysis of democratic decay in an accessible style. For that alone, this is a good book for a wide audience and you'll learn a lot. They argue that the two cornerstones of democracy in the U.S. are mutual toleration and forbearance, and these have eroded badly. The comparative analysis is really useful for putting all of Donald Trump's actions in their proper context. Like other authoritarian-minded leaders, he breaks democratic norms on a regular basis and they provide ample examples.

But I do have a few analytical quibbles. First is that they never actually define democracy and when we can consider it "dead," or what "dead" really is. This matters so that you're comparing apples to apples across cases. Further, they discuss the problems of gerrymandering, among other things, which happen more in some U.S. states (e.g. North Carolina, which they use as an example) than others. In North Carolina this has ebbed and flowed--is that democracy "dying"? They argue that the civil war "broke" U.S. democracy (p. 122) but is that the same as "killing" it?

Second, they don't mention much about the nature of presidential vs. parliamentary systems. For the United States, this really impacts the way that Donald Trump deals with Congress. When they start to catalog his actions since his election, the institutional relationships matter quite a lot.

Third, their discussion of constitutions mentions how Latin America copied the U.S. model but that didn't stop coups (p. 98). One problem with that argument is that Latin America blended the U.S. model with the Spanish, which allowed considerable leeway for constitutional military intervention. This matters because the erosion of democracy is different in those constitutional contexts than in the U.S.

Their key policy prescriptions are to build a democratic (and multiracial) coalition, to refound the center-right free from extremism (they use Germany as an example), and to decrease economic inequality through universal rather than means-tested policies. Sound suggestions and of course really difficult.


Thoughts on Trump's Non-Attendance

Some thoughts on Donald Trump's decision not to attend the Summit of the Americas.

1. This isn't shocking. He has made abundantly clear that he has little interest in Latin America and does not like traveling anywhere except to Mar-A-Lago and Trump Tower.

2. I agree that it will be harder to convince Latin America to do something difficult like sanction Venezuela without the POTUS, but Mike Pence is better at delivery than Trump.

3. There is no doubt that many, if not the majority, of Latin Americans attending are relieved. Who wants to deal with stupid tweets and awkward photo ops?

4. I am unconvinced that this is Marco Rubio's moment. Even if he has the president's ear, senators' influence can only go so far.

5. I will be interested to hear Pence's message for Latin America, but it's hard to know how much Trump might change on a dime anyway. It is literally true that what he hears on Fox News can shift his thinking within minutes.

6. Trump is not going to use this time to deal with Syria. Presidents have often balanced international affairs while traveling. Chances he plays golf one of those days is quite high.


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

My Free Latin American Politics Textbook

I am pleased to announce that my textbook Understanding Latin American Politics is going to be published as an open access ebook. It will be published through the Open Monograph Press platform and will be hosted by UNC Charlotte. It is the exact same version as the originally published one, using the same digital files, and will be free and open to everyone. Hopefully this will be ready by next month. Plans are in the works for a second edition and I will write more once I get that all set because there is some cool news attached to it.

I published two textbooks with Pearson and was really unsatisfied (and at times actively unhappy) with the experience so with this book I asked for and received a reversion of the copyright to me. In particular, I was bothered by the price, which was over $50. A book of this type shouldn't cost that much. So I started exploring non-traditional avenues, wanting to get the book out to as many people as possible. As it turned out, a great answer to my questions came from my own university library, which has some really smart and creative people.

So watch for this. If you want an entirely free textbook, the exact same version as the expensive paper one, for your classes, I will have one ready.

BTW, you can get a sense of the original version from the Amazon box on the left of this screen. I will leave that link there for reference until I get the new link.


Pushing Panama

Trump Organization lawyers sent a letter (here is an image) to the President of Panama asking him to intervene directly in a dispute about a Trump hotel.

“We categorically reject any assumption or assertion that the letter sought to ‘pressure’ the President of the Republic of Panama,” or other officials, the firm said. It continued: “The authorization of Trump Organization for its delivery was not requested, and nobody at Trump Organization was aware [of] the letter until today.”

This is disingenuous. Panama is heavily dependent on the United States and the lawyers know that full well. The clear intent was to make Juan Carlos Varela nervous even without a stated threat. As you might guess, the Panamanian reaction is not positive. This is viewed as intimidation of a kind that has long plagued U.S.-Latin American relations. We'll see whether Trump can maintain silence or whether he'll make it worse with a tweet.

This is not a good way to go into the Summit of the Americas, which starts in three days, though at this point it's hard for Trump's image to get worse. Already, a widely shared quote from a Latin American diplomat was that most intended to "smile and nod" around Trump, who is viewed as a blowhard.

Update: shortly after posting I saw that Trump has decided not to attend. Chances he plays golf instead are quite high, I think.


Monday, April 09, 2018

Chile's Trade With China

While Donald Trump was attacking free trade in 2017, China and Chile were updating their free trade agreement, originally signed in 2005. Combined with the Trump Administration's trade war with China, we are seeing the following:

--Greater wine exports to China

--Greater, walnut, prune, and blueberry exports to China

--Greater pork exports to China (a product that does not typically come to mind for Chile)

--Oregon producers are worried about Chile increasing its blackberry exports to their detriment

--Chilean nectarine exports to China are booming

I could go on and on.

It is also worth noting that China is Chile's main trading partner. 28.5% of Chile's exports go to China, whereas the U.S. accounts for 14.1%. Meanwhile, 24.1% of Chile's exports come from China, versus 17.4% from the U.S.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion, which is now approaching conventional wisdom, that this trade war will increase China's presence in Latin America. How well Latin America and other regions make up for China's disrupted trade is unknown. Another unknown is how Latin America responds to U.S. producers trying to push into new markets after being re-routed away from China. I am sure they are scrambling right now to identify those markets.


Maduro's Self-Defeating Retaliation

I'm quoted in this story about Nicolás Maduro's 90 day retaliatory sanctions against Panama, including banning Copa Airlines from flying to Venezuela. My argument is that this hurts Venezuela more than anyone and will not deter other Latin American countries from imposing their own. They're choosing not to do so for other reasons.

The Copa decision is particularly self-defeating because fewer and fewer airlines are interested in flying to Venezuela, so this is a form of self-isolation. Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela basically said as much.

“Panama is a logistic route,” he told reporters. “Venezuelans rely on Panama to supply medicine and food that they lack.”

In sum, this action hurts Venezuelans. At least Maduro was smart enough not to make the sanctions indefinite.


Sunday, April 08, 2018

The Petro Savior

I'm basically bookmarking this for future reference. A cryptocurrency news site has a story about Venezuela, focusing on the government's claim that Donald Trump's statements and actions against the Petro have served to double the number of investors. There is no reason to believe this, just as there is no reason to believe any of the government's claims about the amount of investment. Even the Russians are skeptical.

What I found more interesting was this bit of specificity:

“Petro’s impact will be felt within three to six months. We have already advanced fast. As the gringos know that we are going to quickly reorganize our economy, they attack the Bolivarian Government; but they will not stop the economy’s growth, they know it.

There you go: three to six months even with the "attacks." There is no reason to believe this either but it's more specific than the government tends to be.


Saturday, April 07, 2018

Latin America Links

It's been a while since I've done links. Click to see smart people doing work on Latin American politics in some manner.

--Mike Allison writes in frustration about the U.S. response to Central American migrants.

--Chris Sabatini argues that the Venezuelan opposition should participate in elections.

--Geoff Ramsey on sanctions against Venezuelan officials. This is a few weeks old but has a useful database.

--Boz makes five points about the Costa Rican presidential election. These days it's nice to see tolerance in an election.

--Merike Blofield and Christina Ewig write about reproductive rights in Latin America. Less evidence of tolerance there unfortunately.

--Patricio Navia has a funny take on the Summit of the Americas.

Here are some Twitter feeds you might check out:

--Tim Gill (sociologist and Venezuelanist at UNC Wilmington)

--John Polga-Hecemovich (political scientist at the US Naval Institute)

--Southeastern Council of Latin American Studies (SECOLAS)

--Orlando Pérez (political scientist at Millersville University)

--Christina Wade (political scientist at Washington College)


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