Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Stephen Dando-Collins Tycoon's War

Stephen Dando-Collins' book Tycoon's War chronicles William Walker's infamous effort to become president of Nicaragua and to colonize the country in the mid-1850s. What a miserable affair: I mean that effort, not the book, which flows well. We see 19th men in all their vainglory and extreme prejudices. Walker wanted glory over "uncivilized" people, Cornelius Vanderbilt (who helped defeat him) wanted unfettered access for his transit company across Nicaragua, soldiers of fortune wanted violent adventure and spoils, the American public wanted accounts of how superior they were to Central Americans, while Central Americans themselves mostly wanted to be left alone.

There's not much good to be said of anyone in the book. The Central American (and I refer to the region because it united briefly to drive Walker out) leaders themselves stabbed each other in the back constantly. It's telling that the end of the book describes all the executions that took place, including Walker's. It seems most of the protagonists soon ended up against a wall. Meanwhile, the bulk of Walker's soldiers ended up joining the Confederacy. Indeed, Walker had ended the ban on slavery in Nicaragua precisely to gain southern support.

Page after page shows the lives lost, sometimes in horrific ways (such as burning) for no real purpose at all. Filbusters came with bloodlust, taking enormous risks and dying (often of disease) for nothing. There was no way Walker would maintain any sort of government long-term. Even though he was self-proclaimed president, he had no government, no policies, no popular support, and no knowledge of governing. He was emphatically uninterested in Nicaraguans themselves.

In the U.S. we've forgotten the sordid story entirely. In Nicaragua, September 14 is San Jacinto Day and a national holiday because it remembers a key Nicaraguan victory against Walker's forces in 1856. The assault on sovereignty Walker represented means nothing to us, which is unfortunate. And all too common.


Monday, September 28, 2015

Latin America Blog Links

Some Latin America-oriented blog shout outs:


Friday, September 25, 2015

Leopoldo López in the NYT

Leopoldo López published an op-ed in the New York Times. He talks about what Venezuelans must do, but the thrust of the article (given its audience) is the demand for pressure on the government to "lobby for democratic rights" and, perhaps even more crucially, allow election observers.

For the December elections, pressure must be applied on the government to allow electoral observers from the O.A.S. and the European Union, which has not occurred since 2006. Their independence and impartiality are needed now more than ever to ensure that our opportunity for change is not compromised.

Given the context, this is a reasonable request. There were real problems in 2013. Meanwhile, 31 ex-presidents of Latin America (and apparently also Spain for some reason) signed a document calling for international observers. The Venezuelan government has rejected having either the OAS or the EU.

But where will this pressure come from? U.S. pressure will be counterproductive so this needs to come from Latin America, where we're seeing no pressure of any kind.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

Latin American Perception of Threat

Thanks to Orlando Pérez for pointing this out to me. The Pew Research Survey looked at what citizens of different countries currently see as threats. It includes a diverse group of Latin American countries, and they are not concerned about the same things as the United States.

Climate change is a big deal to Latin Americans whereas in the U.S. we have a big chunk of the ideological spectrum mocking it (and in fact one member of Congress is boycotting the Pope's speech to Congress today because he doesn't like the Pope emphasizing it). The U.S. is obsessed with Iran and Latin America is not.

Part of this is that Latin American countries do not have strong interests outside the hemisphere and are more focused on their own conditions, which are greatly affected by climate and economic stability. What this also means is that we see a lot of disjuncture between U.S. and Latin American priorities. This is not nearly as bad as it was during the Bush administration (where refusing to support the invasion of Iraq was a major bone of contention) but it's still there.


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Labeling Daniel Scioli

A Bush administration official takes a look at the Argentine elections, and the result is illuminating. His goal is to pin an ideological label on Daniel Scioli but his failure to do so makes him frustrated to the point that he blames Scioli for not having a more black and white ideological bent.

Scioli has a hard time choosing who he wants to be and how he wants to be seen.

Wrong. Politicians aren't required to force themselves into boxes. Sometimes they do, but Latin American leaders have been bedeviling U.S. pundits for years. Ollanta Humala in Peru may well be the best case, where media coverage started at "leftist" (even by U.S. leftists!) and soon shifted to "market-friendly ally" (who rang the Wall Street bell).

So let's stop all the labeling. This was a Bush administration obsession and fortunately Obama has done so much less. As I argued earlier this year, Latin American leaders are far more pragmatic than U.S. admit:

The vast majority of what we consider the Latin American left operates under the assumption that policies should be geared to harnessing capitalism, not overthrowing it. As a result, most governments defy easy binary categorization.

This is true of Argentina, perhaps even more so because Peronism is traditionally so amorphous, always eluding easy left and right labels.


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Recreating CICIG Outside Guatemala

Mike Allison writes about the role of CICIG (the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala).

CICIG's existence and continuation is jointly agreed upon by the Government of Guatemala and the United Nations. Almost all of CICIG's operations, maybe all of them, are paid for by the international community. In that sense, there's no real sovereignty issue. However, I can understand some frustration that people have with the UN and US pressuring Otto Perez Molina to extend its mandate after Perez Molina made it clear that he no longer wanted CICIG in the country.

A question I've been pondering is what conditions make a government likely to accept CICIG? It requires a president to request it and a legislature to approve it. As I understand it, Oscar Berger pushed for CICIG because of all the criticism about violence in Guatemala (though he too later questioned it). But are there structural conditions that we could potentially see in other countries that would be optimal for a CICIG copy? For example, when would we see a president push so hard, as Berger did?

It's not simple because it requires voluntary delegation of sovereignty. Even ratification in Guatemala was very much in question until three Salvadoran members of the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN) were murdered, which Berger used to emphasize the need for the legislature to approve CICIG.

CICIG has worked, which makes it scary, which makes it less likely elected officials will want to create one of their own. At what point does a combination of internal and external pressures make it happen?


Monday, September 21, 2015

U.S. Might Abstain on UN Cuba Vote

This is big news. Every year (last year was the 23rd) the United Nations has a vote condemning the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Usually it is ridiculously lopsided, with the U.S. and 2-3 other countries (one is always Israel) voting against it. Now the U.S. may abstain, thus acknowledging the criticisms as valid.

The article suggests this is a message to the UN that if the wording is changed (exactly how is unclear) then the U.S. will hop on board. Here is the basic wording (sorry about the formatting).

Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba The General Assembly, Determined to encourage strict compliance with the purposes and principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, Reaffirming, among other principles, the sovereign equality of States, non-intervention and non-interference in their internal affairs and freedom of international trade and navigation, which are also enshrined in many international legal instruments, Recalling the statements of the Heads of State or Government at the Ibero-American Summits concerning the need to eliminate the unilateral application of economic and trade measures by one State against another that affect the free flow of international trade, Concerned about the continued promulgation and application by Member States of laws and regulations, such as that promulgated on 12 March 1996 known as “the Helms-Burton Act”, the extraterritorial effects of which affect the sovereignty of other States, the legitimate interests of entities or persons under their jurisdiction and the freedom of trade and navigation, Taking note of declarations and resolutions of different intergovernmental forums, bodies and Governments that express the rejection by the international community and public opinion of the promulgation and application of measures of the kind referred to above, Recalling its resolutions 47/19 of 24 November 1992, 48/16 of 3 November 1993, 49/9 of 26 October 1994, 50/10 of 2 November 1995, 51/17 of 12 November 1996, 52/10 of 5 November 1997, 53/4 of 14 October 1998, 54/21 of 9 November 1999, 55/20 of 9 November 2000, 56/9 of 27 November 2001, 57/11 of 12 November 2002, 58/7 of 4 November 2003, 59/11 of 28 October 2004, 60/12 of 8 November 2005, 61/11 of 8 November 2006, 62/3 of 30 October 2007, 63/7 of A/68/L.6 2/2 13-51021 29 October 2008, 64/6 of 28 October 2009, 65/6 of 26 October 2010, 66/6 of 25 October 2011 and 67/4 of 13 November 2012, Concerned that, since the adoption of its resolutions 47/19, 48/16, 49/9, 50/10, 51/17, 52/10, 53/4, 54/21, 55/20, 56/9, 57/11, 58/7, 59/11, 60/12, 61/11, 62/3, 63/7, 64/6, 65/6, 66/6 and 67/4, further measures of that nature aimed at strengthening and extending the economic, commercial and financial embargo against Cuba continue to be promulgated and applied, and concerned also about the adverse effects of such measures on the Cuban people and on Cuban nationals living in other countries, 
1. Takes note of the report of the Secretary-General on the implementation of resolution 67/4;1 
2. Reiterates its call upon all States to refrain from promulgating and applying laws and measures of the kind referred to in the preamble to the present resolution, in conformity with their obligations under the Charter of the United Nations and international law, which, inter alia, reaffirm the freedom of trade and navigation; 
3. Once again urges States that have and continue to apply such laws and measures to take the necessary steps to repeal or invalidate them as soon as possible in accordance with their legal regime; 
4. Requests the Secretary-General, in consultation with the appropriate organs and agencies of the United Nations system, to prepare a report on the implementation of the present resolution in the light of the purposes and principles of the Charter and international law and to submit it to the General Assembly at its sixty-ninth session; 
5. Decides to include in the provisional agenda of its sixty-ninth session the item entitled “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba”. 

The officials suggest that the revision could be done with the Cubans, which perhaps suggests Cuba must accept something in there as well (on economic freedom or something?).

It is unheard of for a U.N. member state not to oppose resolutions critical of its own laws. 
And by not actively opposing the resolution, the administration would be effectively siding with the world body against Congress, which has refused to repeal the embargo despite calls from President Barack Obama to do so.

You got that right! States don't vote against themselves. There will be quite a howl from Congress and the right more generally. Obama is at the point where not only does he never need to face election again, but he figures there is a chunk of the country that hates him and essentially they can't hate him more so why not go for it?


Friday, September 18, 2015

The Pope and Cuba

There is a lot of attention on the Pope's visit to Cuba. Is this a watershed moment for Cuban dissidents? Is there too little pressure on the regime? What does this mean in the longer term for human rights in Cuba?

In large part, this reflects a need to have a narrative. The Pope's visit must cause something, or not cause something. Unfortunately this narrative means that everyone will be disappointed.

There is change going on in Cuba but it's very slow. There is really nothing the Pope could do to speed it up. He could be frank in his message (which we may well do) and that won't speed things up. He could meet with dissidents (which as I understand he won't) and it wouldn't speed things up, though that would provide at least a symbolic boost to the opposition. Therefore it's extremely unlikely that there will be a concrete result that people are hoping to see.

Meanwhile, the Pope is also expected to criticize the U.S. embargo. Naturally, that will not sit well with many in the United States, and so I expect to read plenty of complaints in that regard.

Likely outcome: the Pope has a message that is mostly religious rather than political. He talks about human rights but downplays direct criticism of the Cuban government. Overall, he has something to say that gets under the skin of just about everyone but not in a way that sparks rapid change.


Thursday, September 17, 2015

Maduro's Message on Pronouncements

The Venezuelan government is angry that some Chilean lawmakers criticized Leopoldo López's conviction. The essence of the Venezuelan foreign ministry's response was this:

Para la República Bolivariana de Venezuela es norma fundamental abstenerse de pronunciarse sobre los asuntos domésticos de cualquier Estado soberano.

"For the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela it is a fundamental norm to abstain from making pronouncements about the domestic affairs of any sovereign state."

This is funny because there is no Latin American leader who makes pronouncements about other country's affairs than Nicolás Maduro.

From April 2015: Venezuelan government circulates petition to criticize Obama for declaring Venezuela a national security threat.

From August 2015: Maduro says Alvaro Uribe and the Colombian right are assassins (which he's done countless times).

From July 2015: Maduro says that Guyana is making decisions in cahoots with Exxon Mobil.

From November 2013: Maduro says the Honduran presidential count is wrong.

Hugo Chávez did the same. Sometimes making pronouncements is a good thing. Sometimes it's not. Either way, you should not wrap yourself in the mantle of not saying things about other countries when you do so on a regular basis.

Update: Chris Sabatini makes a related point about how UNASUR's emphasis on non-intervention makes it toothless.


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Northern Capital of Latin America

Los Angeles is billing itself as the "northern capital of Latin America" as part of its effort to host the 2024 Olympics. My hunch is that Latin Americans would not agree. Leave it to Americans to assume their cities are the capitals of everything.


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Julie Shayne's Taking Risks

I read Julie Shayne's edited volume Taking Risks: Feminist Activism and Research in the Americas (2014). The title is intended to convey both the risks that activists take and the professional risks scholars make when they engage in this type of research. The book centers on story-telling as part of transnational feminist methodologies and is organized in three parts: Texts, stories, and activism; performed stories of social justice; and activist stories from the grassroots. The authors come from all over the hemisphere and the line between activist and academic is blurred.

As someone with little background on the topic, I was particularly interested in the diversity of views. All the authors are committed to social justice, but how they approach it varies considerably. Goals include giving voice to the voiceless, simply helping others, creating an archive by which these stories become permanent, and understanding yourself better and becoming more self-aware, even methodologically. The authors also discuss ways in which their own thinking is challenged and how they deal with that. As a result, the stories of activism and activists are compelling but the self-reflection is perhaps more so.

Interestingly, no author is a political scientist. That's unfortunate because there are scholars doing work in this area (e.g. Christina Ewig, who I went to graduate school with) who seek to bridge the activist/positivist divide that Shayne outlines. Nonetheless, the chapters offer a lot of food for methodological thought.


Operation Naked King

The U.S. government has long been upset that Bolivia booted out the Drug Enforcement Agency and turned to Brazil for anti-narcotics assistance. I've been writing about that for a while. Now the DEA has taken it a step further with a sour-grapes, silly-named effort to undermine Evo Morales. The Huffington Post reporters who cover it do a good job of providing all the context.

High-level Bolivian officials have in the past been caught trafficking (one even blamed the U.S.!) and so we should not be surprised if others are also corrupt. However, this particular effort appears to have a grander claim, as at the same time the Obama administration once again says it will "decertify" Bolivia for...well, doing things its own way. In particular, the State Department emphasizes the U.S. demand to decrease the amount of legally grown coca.

So we'll see once evidence makes its way into the public eye. What we should remember is that there has been a constant trickle of U.S. hyperbole aimed at Bolivia, most of it ridiculous.


Monday, September 14, 2015

Maduro's Election Strategy #6D

Looking forward to the December 6 legislative elections, where the stakes are high, Nicolás Maduro has three main goals:

1. Keep the opposition fragmented
2. Keep voter minds off the economy and other problems
3. Avoid abstention

His recent decisions to convict Leopoldo López, to antagonize Colombia (now including invading its airspace) and to veer away from public rapprochement with the United States, should all be seen as part of an overall strategy of doing as well as possible in the elections.

Maduro has a legitimate beef with regard to the Colombian border, but the escalation is disproportionate. This isn't really about protecting the Venezuelan economy, but planting a seed of doubt about the origins of the economy's distortions. For the same reason, it is dangerous to be too friendly with the U.S. government because he needs also to blame the U.S. for being close to the Colombian right, which he accuses of economic sabotage.

Government opponents routinely label it is totalitarian, which involves twisting the word into something unrecognizable that simply means "governments I hate." Totalitarian governments don't fret over elections, and Maduro is fretting. Perhaps more than anything else he needs people who lean Chavista but who are not hardcore supporters to vote rather than just stay home. This is the first legislative election without Hugo Chávez, and Maduro's political skills pale in comparison.

In general, if in the next two months Maduro gets social media aflutter or makes headlines (in Latin America and/or here) think #6D.


Sunday, September 13, 2015

Exporting Obesity to Latin America

Has anyone coined the term "Calorie Imperialism"? If not, I just did. The latest example is Krispy Kreme's announcement that it was expanding in Latin America, specifically to Bolivia and Peru.

“We think the Krispy Kreme brand and doughnuts will be hits in Bolivia, as we tap into the culture of sharing that is prevalent throughout the country,”

Seriously? Krispy Kreme will just fit right in with traditional indigenous culture.

Obesity is a real problem in Latin America. U.S. companies, having given Americans what they want, which has included bulging waistlines, are eagerly seeking to do the same abroad. And as in the U.S. they often have an enthusiastic audience.

It's noteworthy too that this is true in Bolivia, generally held up by leftists as revolutionary. But even there capitalism is working smoothly, so intellectuals can talk discuss Marx over a few glazed donuts.


Friday, September 11, 2015

Maduro vs. López

Leopoldo López was convicted of inciting violence and now faces over 13 years in prison. Originally I had thought Nicolás Maduro was making a mistake by transforming López into a martyr. I've been reconsidering that. It is entirely possible that he wants López to be a martyr because Maduro figures he is incapable of uniting the opposition. As I wrote back in February 2014:

It may well be that López would like to become a martyr, but acting like a teenaged bully is not a good way to achieve that.

If the opposition is focused on López then it will not be doing the more difficult business of unifying, coming up with a coherent strategy and tactics, etc. A #LaSalida approach is very unlikely to convince a majority of Venezuelans. You might be concerned about inflation and insecurity but even more concerned about increased political instability or even a coup.

I'm not convinced, then, of the notion that Maduro is afraid of López. Some of the arguments in that regard, in fact, really miss a key point. For example:

Though López and Maduro are both politicians, the contrast between the two could not be starker. López is fit, handsome, clean-shaven, relatively young at 43-years-old, and comes from one of Venezuela’s blue-blooded families. Maduro is stout, lumbering, mustachioed, nine years older, and is the son of a Leftist union leader. López attended Kenyon College and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he earned a master’s degree in public policy. Maduro never graduated from high school. 

I'd argue that this contrast works very much against López because of the clear elitism that undergirds it. López is the sort of person many Venezuelans were chafing to be free from. How many? News stories toss around 50% approval, Even if that's roughly accurate, it's different from being a unifier, which is what the opposition needs.

Of course, this is a very cold discussion, divorced from whether López should be in jail. The answer is no, and the whole thing stinks. This is politics playing out at a brutal level. The political question is why Maduro has decided to go this route.

How does the U.S. play into this? Roberta Jacobson said this:

The Obama administration is in a tough spot because over-reaction will work in Maduro's favor. There has been some quiet diplomacy going on, which I suppose will freeze. There are already calls for more sanctions, and they might succeed, but they won't help the opposition. I'm not sure who can.

Update: here is the statement from John Kerry:

The United States is deeply troubled by the conviction and sentencing of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. The decision by the court raises great concern about the political nature of the judicial process and verdict, and the use of the Venezuelan judicial system to suppress and punish government critics. 
Since Mr. Lopez’s arrest and imprisonment in February of 2014, we have underscored our concern with the charges brought against Mr. Lopez—which we consider illegitimate—and we have repeatedly called for his release and for the release of all Venezuelans who are imprisoned for political reasons. We call on the Government of Venezuela to respect the rights of all political prisoners; and to guarantee fair and transparent public trial, consistent with the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, the Inter-American Democratic Charter, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Venezuela’s Constitution.


Thursday, September 10, 2015

Otto Pérez Molina and Scooby Doo

"It would've been fine if it hadn't been for those meddling kids!" is basically the message Otto Pérez Molina is sending about the role of the U.S. government in his downfall. It is remarkable and so rare for the U.S. to be "blamed" for helping to do precisely the right thing in Central America. CICIG has been entirely positive for Guatemalan democracy, and the Obama administration actively supported it. This is the sort of blame you can believe in.

This is also why you see governments in El Salvador and Honduras saying they don't need a CICIG. When the Mystery Machine shows up, it's all over.


Wednesday, September 09, 2015

The Role of Emotions in Tenure

Karen Kelsky at The Professor Is In rails against the use of emotion in tenure files.

I cannot fathom why the writers believe that their feelings play a role in the institution’s deliberation about their tenurability. Put another way, I cannot fathom why the writers believe that the institution gives a flying fuck what they find personally rewarding or pleasing or gratifying. 

Looking back at my personal statement for promotion to full professor (in 2011) I included the words enjoyable, fun, friends, fulfilling, enthusiasm, gratifying, energized, satisfying, and rewarding. I put them in because they were true--I've done stuff that represented tangible academic achievement while also being being really cool for me in some way.

I can't find my 2004 tenure statement at the moment but it would sound similar because that's how I did those memos. I even came up for tenure early. So according to her I should've been shot down or at least looked down upon. But now I'm chair, and I am fine with assistant professors doing the same if that accurately reflects how they see their own body of work. If they choose not to, then also fine.

And furthermore, the continual use of emotion-language sends an additional message of egotism and self-importance.  As if, the truly significant aspect of the candidate’s tenure is not what they provide for the institution, but what the institution provides for them: a stage for a private drama of pleasure and gratification.

At least in my opinion, you can be very clear about what you've accomplished while also admitting you liked it. I agree with her that vapid statements are useless, but emotions aren't necessarily vapid or egotistical.

As always, show your statement around and get feedback from more senior colleagues. If your particular review committee/chair/dean has particular preferences one way or the other, then follow that lead.


Rafael Correa's Re-Election Options

Catherine Conaghan, who has written a lot on Ecuador, asks whether Rafael Correa will find it too risky to try and run for another consecutive term. Not surprisingly, she sees it as the less likely scenario.

From now until December, the reelection maneuvering and two possible outcomes will dominate conversations.  Under one scenario, Correa and Alianza País will push ahead with the amendment, ignoring negative public reaction and repressing protests if necessary, and Correa will decide on his candidacy depending on his view of the economy and the state of the opposition.  In a second and perhaps less likely scenario, Correa and his party may just abandon the reelection plan, concluding that the political costs are just too high.  This would set off power struggles within Alianza País over who would head the ticket.  Among the prospective frontrunners are former Vice President Lenín Moreno, current Vice President Jorge Glas, Production Minister (and former Ambassador to the United States) Nathalie Cely, and former Industry Minister-turned-critic Ramiro González.  In the process, Correa will be looking to anoint someone loyal and capable of governing the country until he can return as a candidate in 2021.  Under both of these scenarios, Ecuador is bracing for a volatile year ahead.  Natural disasters – a possible volcanic eruption of Mount Cotopaxi and El Niño – could also fuel uncertainty, giving Correa a chance to shine and rally, or to fail and deepen doubts about his leadership.  After eight years of relative political stability and economic good times, Ecuadorians are pondering whether a post-Correa era could be at hand and what it would mean.

With Otto Pérez Molina's resignation and imprisonment alongside questions about whether Dilma Rousseff would last out her term, I guess we'll be seeing more of these scenarios for other presidents. This is a tough time to be a Latin American president. Among other things, Chinese demand for commodities has dropped, oil producers are hurting badly, spending is harder to maintain, and people are getting fed up with corruption.

I wonder about the "Ecuadorians are pondering" part at the end, though. Or at least it would be nice to have links. To what degree is this a growing topic in Ecuador?


Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Guatemala Aftermath

At Latin America Goes Global, Orlando Pérez has a rundown of the Guatemala situation. He concludes with this:

It is hard to see how the victory of any of these candidates will improve the political situation in the country. However, it is also difficult to believe that, given the events of the last few months, Guatemalans will be willing to accept politics—or corruption—as usual. Whoever wins the presidency will begin their term of office with a very short leash, and under intense scrutiny from civil society and the international community. 
The opportunity for reform will depend on transforming the popular mobilizations that brought down a president into a sustained effort that engages a broad segment of Guatemalan society. In these conditions, the new president’s honeymoon will be short. In a year or so, Guatemalans will either be reaping the rewards of their mobilization by furthering a process of positive change or they might be back in Constitution Plaza seeking the ouster of another president.

I've already expressed my pessimism, but he brings up another challenge. People may unite to bring down an unpopular and corrupt president, but they may well disagree on everything else. Transformational change, structural change, will face serious opposition, including from the military, even if there is consensus about corruption. Can popular mobilization overcome elite intransigence?

Meanwhile, the fight for the second slot in the runoff election is down to just a few thousand votes. Will the loser accept the outcome?


Sunday, September 06, 2015

Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style

I read Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style: A Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century! As is too often the case, the sentence after the colon sounds pompous but the book doesn't. I really enjoyed it because he provides clear yet undogmatic explanations about how to write in a way that makes your ideas understandable. Years ago I read Lynne Truss' Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which I found sometimes funny but also pissy. Apparently the latter aspect generated all kinds of reviews about how her own writing violated her own rules.

Pinker makes plenty of assertions but he makes clear that rules shouldn't be concrete just because people say they should be. The English language is constantly evolving, and in fact many of the so-called "rules" are myths, unsupported by anything (take, for example, the split infinitive). He tries to cut through the pedantry to make writing do what you want. Poor writing leads your reader in the wrong direction, which is precisely what you need to avoid. Make word or punctuation choices based on where you want the reader to focus. Think about prosody, especially with commas. Ask yourself if you are being unnecessarily posh/stuffy. Don't fall into what he calls "professional narcissism" (p. 186) where your own expertise leads you (even unconsciously, I think) to become lazy abut organization and jargon. On that point he also writes, "The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose" (p. 61).

Finally, I like how he cites the ways in which young people have for centuries been accused of butchering the English language. As we get older we get set in our ways and look down on those coming after us. We're always wrong.


Rafael Correa's Media Mania

Rafael Correa is famous for being thin-skinned about the media. He's even let himself by goaded into responses by Twitter trolls.

Now he's produced a YouTube video in response to an article in The Guardian about his administration's clash with indigenous protesters. As you might guess, they are bloodthirsty criminals going up against innocent police. Anyone who questions this is lying and indecent (which, according to several tweets I received, includes me!). His selected bits of YouTube video are "facts" while most portrayals of the police response are "lies."

Green Left Weekly has a nice summary of how Correa has alienated indigenous groups and has simply lumped them in with the right as illegitimate opposition. This is remarkable for a leftist government. That's clearly going here, but with the added Correa mania of specifying media accounts he doesn't like.


Saturday, September 05, 2015

Publishing Academic Books

This article in The Guardian about academic book publishing makes little sense to me. Its basic argument is that scholars are being "hoodwinked" into publishing books no one will read because greedy publishers are charging so much for them. This is wrong for a number of reasons--since the author is anonymous (it is not a sensitive topic so I am not sure why) I don't know whether this is lack of experience or what.

I'll preface this by saying that I've published more than one book both with university and commercial presses. I've had books in paperback and one that remained in hardback despite our pleas. I've had long discussions with editors. I've had book manuscripts rejected and I've written rejections.

1. That "no one will read the book" is always false. It's true that these books are not blockbusters but we don't expect or even want them to be--we want them to push knowledge forward in an area, sometimes even very niche, and that doesn't mean popular. And that's a good thing.

2. Since university presses are pinched really hard, I have no idea how they can be called greedy--they are scrambling to make ends meet because publishing books isn't free and their subventions are evaporating. Perhaps the author is referring solely to commercial academic presses, where profit is even more central. But even there, I know firsthand that many editors are deeply concerned about prices because they also want as large an audience as possible.

3. Since tenure and promotion in some disciplines is tied to book publishing, this article suggests that people are being hoodwinked into advancing their career. What a travesty!

4. The author clearly assumes that if he/she submits the book manuscript, it will automatically be accepted. Having both submitted and reviewed for both university and commercial presses, I can say this is absolutely false. The job of an acquisitions editor is to find authors (even by cold emails, which I have also received) but getting an email from an editor is not the same as getting a book published.

Overall, the cost of academic books can be downright annoying. That's been the case for a long time (there are countless articles on the causes and on solutions that are being tried). It is too far a leap, though, to assert that it signifies we're victims in the power play of oligarchic editors and their fiendish publisher masters.


Friday, September 04, 2015

Maduro and the Colombian Media

According to Colombian Foreign Minister María Angela Holguín, Nicolás Maduro asked that the Colombian government control the country's media more regarding the border crisis, which she rejected.

Interestingly, at the same time there is a new study showing that Colombian media do a poor job of covering the peace talks.

In cases that sources were used, a significant portion of coverage pieces referred to official sources as sole contributor to first hand knowledge, Morales underlined, ignoring the rebels’ or victims’ perspectives.

What to take from this? One easy conclusion is that the media is pro-government. Whether that means the government is pulling strings--or if so, how hard--is a different question. From the 2014 Freedom House report:

Journalists throughout the country, but particularly in rural areas, face harassment from various actors, including local criminals, drug-trafficking groups known as bacrim, guerrilla movements, and the government. 

So Maduro may not be entirely wrong, even if his tactics are ham-handed.


Bachelet's Second Term Blues

Javiera Quiroga at Bloomberg has a story on Michelle Bachelet's faltering second term. The economy is slow, the commodity boom is over, there are corruption scandals hanging around her, she's having a difficult time fulfilling her promises, and she's unpopular.

If she's in a glass half full mood, here's what she has:

First, everyone is unpopular these days. We've Latin American presidents all over the place implicated in corruption scandals, but even ones not touched by them are hurting. Only a few, like Evo Morales, are unscathed. As is usually the case, popularity also has no correlation with ideology.

Second, as has been the case for a long time, the Chilean opposition is also unpopular so it's not just about her. There is a whiff of the United States here, because President Obama's approval rating is about 46% (of course, still much higher than Bachelet) while Congress' is 14% and the Republican Party is 32%. This is cold comfort, but still.

Something I've written about a few times as well is the lesson that it's hard to avoid Grover Cleveland Syndrome, whereby the success of your first term falls apart when you win a second nonconsecutive term as president. The magic just isn't there.


Thursday, September 03, 2015

Otto Pérez Molina Resigns

Well, that was fast. The Guatemalan legislature voted to remove Otto Pérez Molina's immunity and very soon thereafter the attorney general issued a warrant for his arrest, which in turn prompted his resignation. It's very nice to see political institutions functioning as they should to promote horizontal accountability (and no small measure of vertical accountability as well, given the extensive protests).

This is all good. As I wrote yesterday, I am not so sure about what it will mean in the long term for Guatemala. But it's a step in the right direction. I think it should also spark more discussion about the potentially very positive role of international institutions working with domestic political actors. Kudos to the United Nations.


Wednesday, September 02, 2015

No Guatemalan Spring?

Warning: cynical post ahead.

The news that the Guatemalan legislature voted to remove President Otto Pérez Molina's immunity from prosecution is huge. The move puts even more pressure on him to resign in the short term, though if he chooses not to this could be a protracted process.

What's been brewing in my mind is hesitation to use the word "spring," which is popping up. Back in June I wrote this about the possibility of a "Central American Spring":

It's hard to see rapid transformation in any Central American country. I'd say the best case scenario is that presidents gradually come to understand that corruption will be prosecuted, that the international community continue to play a constructive role, and that Central American elected officials slowly demonstrate why citizens should trust them. 
If Otto Pérez Molina actually resigns or is otherwise democratically removed before his term is over, it'll be historic. But I am not sure it'll mean long-term change, which is a lot harder and requires chipping away at an oligarchy that will not give up easily.

I think this still holds. Here are a few reasons why:

Resignation doesn't mean the end of corruption. In Brazil, President Fernando Collor de Mello faced impeachment for corruption and resigned in 1992. Now he's a senator and another president is under fire and facing protests for corruption. Granted, Guatemala has CICIG, but this is not an overnight process.

The oligarchy remains. Even if OPM is forced out, it's hard to see radical transformation. The current VP, Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre, is no radical--he helped overturn the Efraín Ríos Montt conviction. How does a change in president help the poor and/or indigenous? Other Central American countries have seen presidents in jail and there was no transformation.

Political structures don't change. Unlike Middle Eastern cases, the problem in Guatemala is not elections, which have been held with alternation of power (and with Alvaro Colom at least some measure of ideological shift as well). It's that elections don't change the undemocratic status quo much.

Even if we call it a "spring," that's not necessarily the same as democratization. Just look at Egypt, where the military did not stay out of power long. Would Guatemalan military leaders accept rapid, democratic change?

Believe me, I want to be wrong. If OPM were to resign because of real legislative and popular pressure, I want it to represent a major step toward liberal democracy (that is, not simply the bare mechanics of procedural democracy). I fear that although it would be historic, it would also raise expectations unreasonably high.

Colin Snider did a nice job of summing up my sense of the "spring" label on Twitter.

I think this is true. And incidentally, the original "gate" resulted in Richard Nixon resigning but U.S. presidents became ever more secretive.

End of cynical post.


Erik Jennische's Hay Que Quitarse La Policía de la Cabeza

Swedish journalist Erik Jennische's book Hay que quitarse la policía de la cabeza (roughly, You Have to Get the Police Out of Your Head) provides a detailed and sometimes personal view of Cuba's opposition and the challenges it faces. As the title suggests, his interviews with members of the opposition show how years of repression end up guiding people's behavior. Gradually activists have been more successful (though of course only within limits) in expressing discontent, but only once they can break free of that mental restraint.

Jennische interviews a wide range of people, from those who write political articles online to punk rockers. In at least one case this included someone who later turned out to be a government spy (which itself looks like a fascinating story). That example is indicative of how the state manages on a daily basis to make people suspicious of each other--you never know who might be listening. Organizing in any effective fashion and getting your message out is thus even harder. Meanwhile, the state keeps shifting to deal with potential "counter-revolutionaries" by shutting down avenues of communication or even music festivals.

Later, Jennische himself feels the effect when he is detained (and even accused of being part of the School of the Americas) and then deported. He didn't return to Cuba for over a decade afterward. This new edition of the book includes an epilogue that includes his return, which is sobering since he refers to a dissident who was imprisoned (for trying to let loose two pigs in the Parque Central with the names Fidel and Raul painted on them). Even though some in the opposite have been working to the get the police out of their heads, as he argues the state still treats them like children, incapable of their own independence.

This is a reminder that even as U.S.-Cuban relations evolve, we shouldn't expect quick results. The repression is still there and even if it eases there is a hangover effect. You can't get the police out of your head quite that fast.

On a side note, I don't think this book has ever been reviewed in English. Hopefully I can convince some others to check it out. Even nicer would be a translation.


Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Clinton Latin America Emails

If you're interested, take a browse through the Hillary Clinton emails that have recently been declassified. The 2009 Honduras coup is of course of particular interest--I haven't had time to look really closely but my first impression is that there's not much new, at least not that's declassified (though I doubt there would be much new even if every single email was released). That is similar to the lack of excitement in the Wikileaks emails.

On Twitter, Boz pointed out how often "Colombia" is misspelled "Columbia" and indeed it's depressing to see. I am sure Arturo Valenzuela was grinding his teeth as he read the subject line.


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