Friday, October 20, 2017

Evo Morales History Tweeting

Every so often I write a "still fighting the War of the Pacific" post (the first was almost exactly 10 years ago). The case grinds its way through the International Court of Justice, with Chileans (both right and left) arguing that Bolivia has no case for reclaiming territory.* Now Evo Morales is tweeting about it. It's not often that a president starts tweeting about a 1904 treaty.



He's referring to the 1904 Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which defined the border and gave Bolivia some access to the ocean through Chile. The Bolivians didn't and don't consider it too friendly or peaceful, so we have the president getting up in the morning and tweet ranting about it.

* In fact, Evo Morales recently called Michelle Bachelet a liar about it.

Read more...

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Incentives for International Pressure in Venezuels

Jorge Castañeda has an op-ed on the importance of international pressure on Venezuela. It is better than most such analyses, which tend to show considerable optimism for a united front of international actors. He explains the importance of gathering the votes in the European Union for sanctions.

However, there is a major sticking point that he simply glosses over:

En algún momento, dejará de poder pagar el servicio de su deuda externa, sobre todo si los chinos y los rusos dejan de ayudarle.

If. If. If. Even more forcefully, Moises Rendon at the Center for Strategic & International Studies makes the following case:

When looking at resolving the Venezuelan crisis, we must consider China’s economic and geopolitical interests, along with Russia’s commercial and oil relationships and Cuba’s political assistance. China has given more than $62 billion in loans to Venezuela in the last 10 years, more than all the multilateral institutions combined. Though China might have a strategic interest in continuing to support an anti-U.S. government in the region, it would also benefit from a transition in Venezuela if a new government brings economic stability, the rule of law, and a respect for previous treaties and bilateral loans.
 Venezuelan engagement with Russia ranges from arm deals to visa reciprocity agreements and oil-production agreements. Russia will also play a role when restructuring Venezuela’s sovereign debt. Rosneft, the Russian oil company, owns 49 percent of CITGO, the Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) oil subsidiary based in the United States. Despite the fact that Russia doesn’t have the financial flexibility to keep the regime afloat, it plays an important role in the international arena, especially as part of the UN Security Council. Cuba, on the other hand, is the political mentor of the regime and Venezuela’s closest ally. Thousands of Cubans reside in Venezuela, either through medical assistance programs or military and intelligence efforts. Eliminating assistance to the Maduro regime from these three countries is key.


Yes, all three countries could figure out a way to deal with a change of government in Venezuela, but do any of the three have an incentive to push it? I just don't see it. Russia and Cuba in particular have a lot to lose politically if the opposition takes power, and Cuba has even more to lose financially. So why would they go along?

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Venezuelan Government is Stronger Than Ever

Your best guess right now is that the Venezuelan government is in a stronger position than ever. The Trump administration can impose sanctions, Luis Almagro can complain (and, incidentally, even the Venezuelan opposition is telling him to shut up), and the opposition can get protests going, but the regime won. And it won bigly.

The opposition is entirely in tatters, splintered and angry at itself. Some of the losing candidates talk of how the leadership paid no attention to local electoral realities. Running a relentlessly negative anti-Maduro campaign appeared not to resonate with Venezuelans, who wanted more from gubernatorial candidates. There is no opposition leadership. María Corina Machado talks of creating a new "Soy Venezuela" as if a new slogan will do the trick.

The opposition can protest, but everyone knows you can't keep that up forever and they have had no impact up to this point. It could use violence but that is a losing proposition both in PR and practical terms. There is every reason to believe the army and police are firmly behind the government. Fighting when you've just lost an election won't be a winning strategy. You could engage in dialogue but the government will run you in circles because it knows you don't have a firm constituency behind you. You've got no leverage anywhere. Mostly what you can do now is work on a clear, positive, coherent message that goes beyond insulting Maduro and convinces Venezuelans that you're not a bunch of out of touch elites who just want back in power.

With that, you look to the 2018 presidential election. You don't really have any other choice.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Cuba and Israel

For the first time, a group of Israeli business leaders is making an official trip to Cuba to talk trade, with the approval (but not endorsement) of the Israeli government. I find this fascinating because not only are there no diplomatic ties between the two countries (Fidel Castro cut them) but the Castro regime has been blistering in its condemnation of Israel and glowing in its relations with Palestinians. Apparently President Obama's thaw inspired Israeli business leaders to push for their own.

It is worth nothing that last year at the annual United Nations vote against the Cuba embargo, Israel switched its traditional "no" vote to an abstain, as did the United States. That vote will be coming up again on November 1, and although I expect the U.S. to go back to "no," it may well be that Israel will not.

This also serves as a stark reminder about how President Trump's foreign policy is often out of step with just about everyone. Even Israel, which he was careful to cultivate, is moving away from the Cold War mentality on Cuba.

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Monday, October 16, 2017

Venezuela's Contentious Elections

Venezuela held gubernatorial elections yesterday. As you might guess, there is plenty of controversy. Here is a good summary from Caracas Chronicles. Some thoughts:

First, the results showed an overwhelming number of wins for the government, which sharply contradicted pre-election polls. Such polls should always be viewed with caution, of course, but all things being equal the results should be regarded with suspicion because a) the election was originally postponed precisely because the government was concerned at how bad it would lose; and b) the country is in tatters and the government is not popular.

Second, new governors will be required to declare allegiance to the Constituent Assembly, which is essentially both legislature and constitution at the same time. I have to wonder how that's going to go because the assembly itself was created to circumvent the opposition-led legitimate legislature.

Third, there was debate in the opposition about whether to vote, but ultimately many people decided it was their right and they should exercise it. Make the government crack down, make it commit fraud, and the international community would respond. Nicaragua, Cuba, and Bolivia all jumped to congratulate the government. TeleSur tries to claim that Honduras did as well, but it's a letter from Mel Zelaya. The smaller OAS states with long ties to Hugo Chávz won't likely budge, so in Latin America it's hard to see this fostering much change.

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Saturday, October 14, 2017

Losing Jobs to Mexico

Tremendous long-form article in the New York Times profiling a woman in her 40s in Indianapolis who loses her manufacturing job to Mexico. Not metaphorically, but literally--she and her co-workers are asked to train Mexicans. There's a lot here.

--She obviously loved Trump's message about jobs (he mentioned her factory in a tweet) but her support for him was skin deep and she did not bother voting. Clearly existing parties offer her nothing--she felt Democrats talked too much about safety nets instead of jobs. She was nervous when she heard Trump was considering ending the health care program that took care of her disabled granddaughter.

--She is gracious about the training, which is just a barbaric practice. The young Mexican man she trains seems genuinely not to know he is taking her job and that she was losing hers. He seemed stricken when he found out. The human element here is strong. She is not the stereotype of the racist working class and indeed even wants to travel to Mexico. A underlying message here is that workers have a lot in common. No, the article is not Marxist, but it's hard to miss the message about owners and workers.

--The reporter is subtle but blasts the modern business model that reward CEOs with millions as they fire people. It is entirely in the interest of executives to screw people. And they do.

--The broken families and domestic violence are clearly a drag, as they contribute to instability, to lack of education and therefore to fewer opportunities. But health care is front and center--bills eat her up quickly.

--In our consumer society, self-worth is derived from the product you produce and the consumer goods you consume.

--there is still a ray of hope at the end, which is her daughter getting a college scholarship. Higher education gets all kinds of criticism these days but it's still the best way to get and keep a job.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Inflation in Venezuela

The IMF's World Economic Outlook has projections on inflation. See page 252 of the statistical abstract for the specific numbers. For the region as a whole, the 2018 projection is 3.6%, which shows how much inflation has been tamed and how high a priority governments give it regardless of their ideology.


And then, of course, there is Venezuela, which for 2018 may be looking at 2,530%, which is a catastrophe and about double the projected final amount for 2017. In the past, hyperinflation was a scourge in numerous countries, so it's particularly striking to see how badly it hits only one country. And that's why the government stopped releasing inflation data almost two years ago.

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Mohsin Hamid's Exit West

Mohsin Hamid's Exit West is an intriguing and unusual novel. The two main characters, Nadia and Saeed, are two young people who live in an unnamed but certainly Middle Eastern country. They come together and when militants take over their city, they flee through one of the many magic doors popping up around the world, which take you somewhere else.

Migrants are doing this globally, which sets the stage for exploration of migrant experience, displacement, nativism, development of new nationalisms, and even personal relationships. If borders disappeared, what would happen?

It's beautifully written, a pleasure to read really. There is no plot per se--people are fleeing and trying to find new meaning in new places, but there is no narrative arc and definitely no effort to explain more broadly what new international responses there are and what the outcome is. That would be interesting to contemplate but it's not his point. Instead, he tries to sort out what happens to these two people.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Latin Americans Feel Corruption is Worse

Transparency International just released a report on corruption in Latin America. The upshot is that people are reporting more instances of it. The report is based on surveys conducted in conjunction with Latinobarómetro.

62% thought corruption had worsened in the past 12 months. The worst by far (87%) is Venezuela, which should not surprise anyone. But the second worst (80%) is Chile. Even stranger, the best results came largely from Central America (Nicaragua is low!). One bright spot is that Guatemalans feel (or at least felt until the recent crisis) more positive about corruption being combated. It's just another reminder how important transnational efforts like CICIG are.

The worst offenders are police and politicians.



There is a lot of interesting (though sometimes sickening) nuance about where bribes are paid. That varies a lot. The fact that health care is a major area for bribes is particularly egregious. Health care is expensive and difficult enough even without paying bribes to access it.

The conclusions are the same as ever. Latin America needs better institutions. More transparent and impartial judicial system. Rinse, wash, repeat.

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Monday, October 09, 2017

The Price of DACA

The Trump administration announced what it wants in return for not shutting down DACA.

Before agreeing to provide legal status for 800,000 young immigrants brought here illegally as children, Mr. Trump will insist on the construction of a wall across the southern border, the hiring of 10,000 immigration agents, tougher laws for those seeking asylum and denial of federal grants to “sanctuary cities,” officials said.
 The White House is also demanding the use of the E-Verify program by companies to keep illegal immigrants from getting jobs, an end to people bringing their extended family into the United States, and a hardening of the border against thousands of children fleeing violence in Central America. Such a move would shut down loopholes that encourage parents from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to send their children illegally into the United States, where many of them melt into American communities and become undocumented immigrants.
...
The president’s demands include new rules that say children are not considered “unaccompanied” at the border if they have a parent or guardian in the United States. They also propose treating children from Central America the same way they do children from Mexico, who can be repatriated more quickly, with fewer rights to hearings.
 Mr. Trump is also calling for a surge in resources to pay for 370 additional immigration judges, 1,000 government lawyers and more detention space so that children arriving at the border can be held, processed and quickly returned if they do not qualify to stay longer. 


So if this is meant to be a serious proposal rather than a way to claim Democrats are axing DACA by refusing to negotiate, it's a matter of what Democrats can swallow. Obviously, this is a hardliner wish list. Both from ethical and PR perspectives, trading one group of young people for another doesn't seem too likely. I will also be curious if any Republicans balk at what will be a high price tag--I don't know if anything cares about deficit spending anymore.

Trump is also a moving target so it's unclear what his bottom line might be. He had his dinner with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi on immigration and has mentioned how he feels compassion for DACA recipients, which made his base howl. So he has lurched back the other direction.

So we'll see what happens. The default prediction on passing immigration bills is failure, but in the past there hasn't been the looming deadline for so many people.

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Saturday, October 07, 2017

U.S. Influence in Honduras

As we all know, in 2009 the U.S. government did not want Manuel Zelaya to return to the presidency after he was overthrown, so effectively stalled until regularly scheduled presidential elections took place later in the year. Porfirio Lobo won those elections. His victory was spun as a boost both to democracy and to fighting corruption. We know the opposite to be true.

Now the New York Times has a long and disgustingly fascinating story about the U.S. government's efforts to combat narcotrafficking in Honduras, which boomed after the 2009 chaos the U.S. helped engender. A major drug lord is now helping and it reaches to the former president.


The evidence, a prosecutor said at a hearing on Sept. 5, showed nothing short of “state-sponsored drug trafficking.”
 Investigators have also gathered evidence that Honduras’s former president, Porfirio Lobo, took bribes to protect traffickers, and that drug money may have helped finance the rise of the country’s current president, Juan Orlando Hernández.


Lobo's son was just sentenced to 24 years in U.S. federal prison on cocaine charges as well.

Back to 2009. The country was in turmoil, activists being killed, democracy crumbling, and in the midst of this the drug traffickers go talk to Porfirio Lobo to seek protection in exchange for large amounts of cash. Even as Lobo talked anti-corruption, he happily took the money.

Concerned about the possibility of extradition to the United States, Mr. Rivera said they paid more than $400,000 in bribes to President Porfirio Lobo, before and after his November 2009 election. At President Lobo’s home in early 2010, Mr. Rivera received the assurance he wanted.

Eventually because of the pressure from the U.S. Treasury Department, the drug lord and his brother portrayed in the article decide to talk. The irony here is palpable. The U.S. has both helped encourage and then fight corruption. This points to the trouble with using the term "U.S. government." Investigators do their job on behalf of the U.S. government but don't have anything to do with policy making. Meanwhile, policy makers may well find it convenient to ignore evidence if it suits them. So we feed all sides of the monster.

Read more...

Friday, October 06, 2017

US-Cuba Relations Get Weirder

About a month ago I wrote about how weird the sonic attack issue was with Cuba. It has become weirder and not in a good way. Examples:


It seems more an excuse for Trump to lash out at Cuba and look tough more than anything else. 

I am stuck with two thoughts. If the Cuban government is not responsible, I don't see how something this important could occur with it knowing who is. On the other hand, the government has nothing to gain and a lot to lose by making such attacks.

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Thursday, October 05, 2017

Sebastian Bitar's U.S. Military Bases, Quasi-Bases, and Domestic Politics in Latin America

I read Sebatian E. Bitar's US Military Bases, Quasi-Bases, and Domestic Politics in Latin America (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). It's a good read.

The core argument is that Latin American domestic politics is the key variable for understanding why the United States has pursued more quasi-bases that are secret and not well known. In a democratic era in Latin America, domestic opposition can use electoral or institutional means to block the approval of formal bases. If the government is willing, then the U.S. can pursue more informal "quasi-bases" (use of airports or local bases, etc.). This provides less oversight but it's also suboptimal for the U.S. because a change of government can change the entire arrangement whenever it wants. With formal bases newly elected governments must wait until an agreement ends (like in Ecuador).

I don't agree with the idea that George W. Bush neglected Latin America and that Barack Obama's administration was marked by "excessive neglect" (p. 32) but that doesn't detract from the empirical argument. In fact, he points out that Latin American countries were more autonomous than the past but still welcomed military bases. They were rejected (as in the case of Colombia) only after domestic outcry.

In short, democratization gave opposition groups institutional veto power. He pays particular attention to the judiciary, parties, and civil society. Although he looks at the universe of cases, he has chapters on failed agreements in Ecuador and Colombia.

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Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Venezuela Still Hearts Syria

Iran claims Venezuela is working with it and Syria to build a new oil refinery in...Syria. That will unshackle Venezuela from the economic war and allow revolutionaries to work together. Or some such, I imagine.

There is really nothing to do but chuckle. Venezuela lacks the resources to embark on such a venture. But more importantly, it should be rather obvious to everyone that Syria is in the midst of a brutal civil war, which makes any investment doomed. The article does a nice job of showing that the announcement is intended primarily as a public statement that Venezuela is not isolated and has allies in other parts of the world. This thing is not going to be built and it is unlikely that the Venezuelan government believes it will be either.

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Saturday, September 30, 2017

Trump's Response to Puerto Rico

Back in 1998, Lars Schoultz published Beneath the United States: A History of U.S. Policy Toward Latin America. The core argument is that policy making has been based on the belief in Latin American inferiority. That should inform how we understand Donald Trump's response to Puerto Rico. It is their fault.




This comes on the heels of his tweets about how Puerto Rico is a disaster to begin with and needs to pay the banks.



In short, Puerto Rican leaders and weak and incompetent. Only the mighty U.S. government can save these poor people, who are incapable of doing it themselves. And, of course, they will need to pay for our beneficence. They also need to be grateful. Even better if they show public gratitude to Donald J. Trump. If not, he'll go on Twitter to show his displeasure.

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Friday, September 29, 2017

Cuban Doctors Fight Back

From the NYT: Cuban doctors are suing in Brazilian courts to allow them to work independently instead of just having the Cuban government take it all. Two things come to mind:

First, renting Cuban doctors without compensating them is reprehensible. This quote from the Brazilian health minister--in a conservative government!--is reprehensible:

“There is no injustice,” said Brazil’s health minister, Ricardo Barros. “When they signed up they agreed to the terms.”

You mean the Cuban government agreed to the terms and took the cash.

Second, diplomatic normalization under the Obama administration helped encourage this development.

The legal challenges are all the more important because the doctors have lost a common backup plan: going to the United States. The American government, which has long tried to undermine Cuba’s leaders, established a program in 2006 to welcome Cuban doctors, with the aim of exacerbating the island’s brain drain.

Attacking in the courts and publicizing this practice is an unforeseen outcome of normalization.

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Thursday, September 28, 2017

Umberto Eco's Travels in Hyperreality

Umberto Eco's Travels in Hyperreality was an impulsive used bookstore purchase. It consists of only loosely connected essays. The hyperreality one is good--he traveled around the United States to examine how we construct different realities. Sometimes they are copies of European originals and sometimes, like Disneyland and Disney World, we construct fake worlds that are intended to be artificial but actually better than reality. And he can be pretty funny.

Some of it veers into the impenetrable: "But this sport squared (which involves speculation and barter, selling and enforced consumption) generates a sports cubed, the discussion of sport as something seen" (p. 162). I still am not sure what he's getting at there. And he kept using the word "bricolage." Yet he can be funny even with the dated (the essays span from the late 1960s to the 1980s) stuff, like a discussion of jeans (which for him appeared to be a relatively new thing). He had heightened awareness of how they fit: "A garment that squeezes the testicles makes a man think differently" (p. 193). Indeed.

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El Salvador in 2016

Mike Allison has an article in the recent issue of Revista de Ciencia Política (from Chile) summing up the challenges El Salvador faced in 2016 (the issue has that theme for the region with case studies). The Salvadoran case is not what you'd call positive:


El Salvador continues to struggle with elevated levels of criminal violence perpetrated by street gangs, drug trafficking organizations, members of the security forces, and other criminal groups. The Attorney General’s Office and courts have taken some positive steps towards tackling impunity for current and civil war-era crimes. However, a history of corruption and favoritism within those institutions continues to undermine citizens’ faith in the legitimacy of their actions. Finally, El Salvador confronts a challenging road ahead characterized by uncertainty over the implications of an overturned amnesty law, low rates of economic growth, and a new U.S. president in the White House. 

Corruption, violence, strict abortion laws, stubborn poverty rates, slow economic growth, indifference and unpredictability from the Trump administration you name it. Go take a look but don't expect to feel good afterward.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Latin America Response to China

Simeon Tegel has a nice take on Latin America's relationship with China. That relationship is often portrayed as one-sided, where Latin America is becoming more dependent, China is spreading its influence, and the like. But it ignores how Latin American leaders are consciously forging their paths, picking and choosing, and avoiding too much entanglement.

But despite Beijing's best efforts – and the uncertainty about future relations with the U.S. as Trump seeks to renegotiate NAFTA and other trade deals – the RCEP remains on the backburner with no Latin American leaders talking up the deal. 
"For ideological reasons, it's very difficult to enter a trade pact led by China," notes Roncagliolo, who also stresses that Latin American nations are not about to repeat the mistakes of the past when the region was in thrall to Spain, Britain and then the U.S. 
Others go further. "China is not the way of the future for Latin America. I just don't see it," says Dawisson Belém Lopes, a professor of international politics at Brazil's Federal University of Minas Gerais, highlighting how Beijing simply cannot compete with the U.S.'s "soft power."


We should start with the assumption that Latin America (with perhaps the exception of basket cases like Venezuela) has agency and has choices, so is not just desperately reaching out to China and it is definitely not passively accepting Chinese "encroachment." Yet that's precisely how so many stories and congressional debates seem to go.

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Monday, September 25, 2017

Travel Restrictions on Venezuelans

Donald Trump added Venezuela to the list of countries with travel restrictions. The wording is as follows:

The government in Venezuela is uncooperative in verifying whether its citizens pose national security or public-safety threats; fails to share public-safety and terrorism-related information adequately; and has been assessed to be not fully cooperative with respect to receiving its nationals subject to final orders of removal from the United States. Accordingly, the entry into the United States of certain Venezuelan government officials and their immediate family members as nonimmigrants on business (B-1), tourist (B-2), and business/tourist (B-1/B-2) visas is suspended.
Three things come to mind.

First, media stories lump Venezuela in with North Korea, Syria, etc. but it's a totally different case. It is highly targeted and Venezuela is not a military threat.

Second, as result of #1, it's a good bet that adding Venezuela was simply a way of claiming the original ban wasn't aimed at Muslims. The ACLU has already mentioned this.

Third, this isn't actually a policy change. It's an expansion of existing sanctions, or at least appears to be since I haven't seen how many Venezuelans were added to the list.

Update: quoted in this Bloomberg article on the topic.

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Sunday, September 24, 2017

Cuba's Role in a Venezuela Transition

Jorge Castañeda (academic and former Mexican Foreign Minister) argues in an NYT op-ed that Donald Trump and Raúl Castro have an incentive to work together on Venezuela. As Venezuelan resources dry up, the Cuban leader understand that long-term he really needs the United States. Trump wants (or claims to want) democratization  in Venezuela and Cuba is the only country with enough clout to have a decisive impact. Safe haven in Havana is an incentive for leaders who will otherwise face imprisonment.


Venezuela has a lot to gain from a grand bargain including Cuba and the United States, but so do Cuba, the United States and the rest of Latin America. At the moment, it might seem naïve to think that Mr. Maduro and his allies would accept a deal in which he leaves power just as he appears to have consolidated it. But sometimes that is the best moment to reach an agreement. Venezuela’s situation is untenable, and the Cubans, who have been around forever, know that. Does Mr. Trump?

I tend to agree with this. The main problem is that in the past year or two, incentives haven't worked the way we would expect them to. There are incentives for Latin American countries to work together, but it hasn't happened. Perhaps more importantly, Donald Trump a) has domestic incentives that sometimes contradict foreign policy ones; and b) does not understand those incentives. He is chasing a small group of voters who loved the Bay of Pigs and might decide to stick with them even though they cannot actually get him elected.

You know what Castañeda doesn't mention? The presence of nefarious external actors. And he shouldn't. As Harold Trinkunas and I talked about on Friday in my podcast, their impact is overstated.

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Friday, September 22, 2017

Podcast Episode 42: Foreign Influence in Venezuela

In Episode 42 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast I talk with Harold Trinkunas, who is Senior Research Scholar and Associate Director at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. Among other things, he’s done a lot of research on Venezuela, including a book on civil-military relations. Last week he gave testimony at a hearing for the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee about Venezuela, and that was the topic of our discussion.


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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Chile Squeezes Venezuela

Sometimes bilateral relations mean public statements by presidents and foreign ministers. Sometimes they are more subtle:


Chile’s central bank said on Wednesday it had revoked a reciprocal credit line with its Venezuelan counterpart, citing what it called Venezuela’s failure to pay back its debts.
 In a statement, Chile’s central bank said it had notified Venezuela’s central bank and that the line would be cancelled within 10 days. The monetary authority said it has been taking steps to mitigate its exposure to Venezuela since 2014 and was currently owed $2.1 million by that country’s central bank.
 “The progressive deterioration of Venezuela’s financial indicators and the (Venezuela central bank‘s) behavior in prior years under this arrangement had already motivated us to adapt measures to safeguard the Central Bank of Chile’s wealth,” the monetary authority said in a statement.
 The Venezuelan central bank had made “intensive use” of the credit line in recent years, Chile’s central bank said.


Venezuela is running low on reserves, cannot keep up oil production, has no other exports, and is deeply in debt. Latin American leaders may talk about sovereignty, non-intervention, or even ideological affinity, but they want their money.

In a sense, this is not a good development for the United States. If Venezuela finds its western hemisphere sources of money unavailable, then it will lean more heavily on China and Russia, which for now continue loaning money partly to tweak the United States and partly to avoid regime change, because who knows what a new government will want to repay. When the U.S. squeezed Cuba with the embargo, it hurt the Cuban people and helped the Soviet Union.

Update: Brazil is also getting edgy.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Trump Further Weakens US Influence in Latin America

From Trump's remarks at a dinner he hosted during the UN conference for the presidents of Brazil, Colombia, Panama, and Peru.

We're fortunate to have incredibly strong and healthy trade relationships with all of the countries gathered here today.  They're doing very well with the United States.  We want to try and change that a little bit so we can turn the tables just a little bit.  You're doing very well, and I congratulate you all.   
Nikki knows exactly what I'm saying, and Rex knows exactly what I'm saying. But we have great relationships, and we do great trade.  Our economic bonds form a critical foundation for advancing peace and prosperity for all of our people and all of our neighbors.  

These types of statements weaken the United States in important ways. They undermine confidence in agreements the U.S. has pushed for, they encourage Latin American leaders to seek more economic agreements outside the hemisphere, and they reduce the leverage the U.S. has to deal with other issues in the region.

Of course, this dinner also included discussion of Venezuela, where Juan Manuel Santos said again that there was no military option. Trump's own words end up meaning that Latin America is listening to him primarily to rebut foolish things he says. His comments about wanting to hurt Latin America more on trade gives the other presidents zero incentive to work with Trump at all. In other words, the U.S. is not leading anything at the moment.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Don't Retract the Crappy Pro-Colonialism Article (Updated)

Inside Higher Ed talks about the call for retraction of Third World Quarterly's pro-colonialism article. This is not a good idea. Just ignore the damned thing. Or if you feel the need to engage with it, just call it a piece of crap and move on.

There are a lot of crappy academic articles, some of them to the point of being laughable. They are generally laughed at and ignored. With some like this, you stop laughing and get annoyed or even angry. But that doesn't merit censorship.

Now the petition itself does have an interesting charge:

The peer review process exists to ensure rigor in published research. We understand that this piece was rejected after review, and that decision should have been respected and this sub-par scholarship should never have been published. Editor or editors at Third World Quarterly allowing this piece utterly lacking in academic merit to be published should be replaced from the Editorial Board.

Hmm. This is hearsay so I would like to know more--the editor says differently, or at least suggests that peer-review led to its acceptance rather than the opposite.

Shahid Qadir, editor of Third World Quarterly and an honorary research associate at the University of London, said in statement Monday that Gilley’s piece had been published as a Viewpoint essay after “rigorous double-blind peer review.” 

I really wish I could see the reviews. If anything, I'd say release the reviews and leave them anonymous.

But it's a moot point. It's a "viewpoint" article, which is like an op-ed. I imagine you do not agree with all op-eds but that does not mean we censor them. This is an egregiously poorly written and argued op-ed that indirectly says genocide is A-OK, but it shouldn't be censored. Retraction would likely give it a lasting impact as a martyr.

Update: even Noam Chomsky agrees with me.

Update (9/29/17). The publisher released a statement. There was indeed a peer review, where one review said minor revisions and the other said reject. The minor revisions one was returned in just four days--I would love to see it. The editor decided to split the difference and do a major R&R, which was clearly a bad choice given the low quality of the article.

Also, the publisher specifically denies this was click bait. I am not sure I believe it.

Updated (10/10/17) The article has been withdrawn because of violent threats against the editor. This disgusts me. The threats themselves are intended to stifle opposition, which is ironic given the topic at hand. And I hate the idea of caving into that.

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Monday, September 18, 2017

U.S. Options for Venezuela

The Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee had a hearing entitled, "The Venezuela Crisis: The Malicious Influence of State and Criminal Actors." The emphasis was on international actors. The upshot:

R. Evan Ellis: Russia and China are serious threats. Sanction the crap out of Venezuela. Unfortunate about how it will hurt Venezuelans, but it'll also save them. Lean on China and Russia.

Francisco Toro: Cuba has a major and extensive influence over the Venezuelan government. Focus on intelligence and proliferation (i.e. giving weapons to Bolivarian militia). No policy recommendations.

Harold Trinkunas: Great quote: "We should avoid over-connecting the dots." External actors mostly trying to make money. Use combination of diplomacy and sanctions targeted at individuals.

We should always start by consciously refusing to over-connect dots--there could be a great analysis of how doing so leads to bad policy. I disagree almost entirely with Ellis' policy prescriptions, which I think will make the crisis worse. Quico did not make any policy prescriptions, but in terms of U.S. policy I think his observations should be wrapped into U.S.-Cuban relations. Cuba's role will diminish once democracy returns to Venezuela, and the U.S. can put pressure on the Cubans by offering carrots elsewhere.


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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Latin American Response to Venezuela

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian takes a historical look at Latin American diplomacy to argue that there is precedent for dealing with a situation like Venezuela. He cites the Contadora Group in particular, which worked on the Central American crisis in the 1980s.

Today, the world and region are immersed in dynamics that are not dissimilar to the past. The case of Cuba shows what the region must avoid. Instead, Latin Americans should emulate cooperative efforts made in Central America by the Contadora Group. This method could help to stabilize the situation in Venezuela before it is too late. Whether the states of Latin America have learned from the past or have the political will, however, remains to be seen.

He uses the case of the Cuban Revolution to show the passivity of Latin American governments, which allowed for Cuba's isolation. Doing the same with Venezuela could have the same effect, which in practice could mean years more of repression.

This has been a vexing question. It is in the collective interest to find a solution to the crisis. Venezuela's problems will spill over. But that spillover is not uniform. Bolivia is more committed to ideology, for example. Plus, such an effort requires considerable time and commitment. Colombia is implementing a peace process while Brazil is trying to impeach everyone.

Article after article has been written about what Latin America needs to do. More should analysis what they're actually doing now and why. I gave my pessimistic view about all this earlier this year.

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Friday, September 15, 2017

Trump and Mexico



This tweet says so much.

1. President Trump does not care about Mexico, even to the point of ignoring natural disasters until public clamor finally prompts him to acknowledge it (remember too that he ignored Mexico's offer of help after Hurricane Harvey.

2. He believes we're stupid. Even if you take the tweet at face value, one reporter who was around where Enrique Peña Nieto was traveling had a cell signal. It's insulting and he knows it's insulting.

3. He believes Mexicans are stupid as well. These tweets are part of diplomacy. Chris Sabatini has a recent piece on the disasters of diplomacy for Latin America policy and this just adds to the disaster.

4. U.S.-Latin American relations are going downhill fast. This comes on the heels of an ill-advised announcement about Colombia.

It's depressing, really.

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Trump's Colombia Blunder

A White House memo states that Venezuela and Bolivia are not adequately combating narcotics and that Colombia may be decertified, which would mean aid cuts and possibly other measures.


In addition, the United States Government seriously considered designating Colombia as a country that has failed demonstrably to adhere to its obligations under international counternarcotics agreements due to the extraordinary growth of coca cultivation and cocaine production over the past 3 years, including record cultivation during the last 12 months.  Ultimately, Colombia is not designated because the Colombian National Police and Armed Forces are close law enforcement and security partners of the United States in the Western Hemisphere, they are improving interdiction efforts, and have restarted some eradication that they had significantly curtailed beginning in 2013.  I will, however, keep this designation under section 706(2)(A) of the FRAA as an option, and expect Colombia to make significant progress in reducing coca cultivation and production of cocaine.

As refresher, one year ago President Obama also singled out Venezuela and Bolivia (he also emphasize the importance of drug treatment, which Trump did not include). I've written before why putting Bolivia on the list contradicts empirical evidence.

But Obama correctly saw Colombia as an ally.

Trump's Latin America policy (the "Trump Doctrine," if you will) has been characterized by threat, bluster, then little change. We can only hope that holds with Colombia as well. The U.S. can only lose by penalizing Colombia, especially at such a delicate time. Literally nothing good can come of it--it could endanger peace, disrupt markets, affect the Colombian peso, and undermine regional confidence (to the extent there is any). Some of these might start happening anyway in anticipation of a possible policy change. All to "scare" Colombia into doing what the U.S. wants.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Podcast Episode 41: Mining Protests in Latin America

In Episode 41 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast I talk with Michelle Bonner, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Victoria. She studies democratization and human rights in Latin America. Going from an article she recently published in Latin American Research Review we discuss the state response to mining protests. How does the ideology of the government matter? What is "dialogue"? What does this tell us about democracy and repression in Latin America?




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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Gotta Love Colonialism

A political scientist has published an article arguing that colonization was positive and that former colonies should either recolonize or copy the colonizer.

For the last 100 years, Western colonialism has had a bad name. It is high time to question this orthodoxy. Western colonialism was, as a general rule, both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate in most of the places where it was found, using realistic measures of those concepts. The countries that embraced their colonial inheritance, by and large, did better than those that spurned it. Anti-colonial ideology imposed grave harms on subject peoples and continues to thwart sustained development and a fruitful encounter with modernity in many places. Colonialism can be recovered by weak and fragile states today in three ways: by reclaiming colonial modes of governance; by recolonising some areas; and by creating new Western colonies from scratch.

My first thought was that we're just being trolled. If we just take the case of Latin America, extolling colonialism require you to believe that at a minimum that genocide is positive, forced labor is a benefit, militarism works well, and racism is acceptable. Those are not things the typical person believes.

It is ironic that an article arguing about "research that is careful in conceptualising and measuring controls" and "includes multiple dimensions of costs and benefits" does precious little of either. Cherry-picked examples don't add up to much.

I would've loved to see the peer reviews of this one. Perhaps they just thought it would be fun to cause some controversy. In that sense, it might be less of a trolling and more of plain old click bait.

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Monday, September 11, 2017

U.S. Military Aid and Coups

A recent academic article looks at the relationship between U.S. military aid and coup probability.

Jesse Dillon Savage and Jonathan D. Caverley, "When Human Capital Threatens the Capitol: Foreign Aid in the Form of Military Training and Coups," Journal of Peace Research 54, 4 (2017): 542-557.

Abstract (gated):


How does aid in the form of training influence foreign militaries’ relationship to domestic politics? The United States has trained tens of thousands of officers in foreign militaries with the goals of increasing its security and instilling respect for human rights, democracy, and civilian control. We argue that training increases the military’s power relative to the regime in a way that other forms of military assistance do not. While other forms of military assistance are somewhat fungible, allowing the regime to shift resources towards coup-proofing, human capital is a resource vested solely in the military. Training thus alters the balance of power between the military and the regime resulting in greater coup propensity. Using data from 189 countries from 1970 to 2009 we show that greater numbers of military officers trained by the US International Military Education and Training (IMET) and Countering Terrorism Fellowship (CTFP) programs increases the probability of a military coup.

Interesting, but I feel like there is more to this story. For Latin America, this should be disaggregated into Cold War and post-Cold War, which would provide a clearer picture. The U.S. has been pouring military aid into Colombia (no coup), Mexico (no coup), Guatemala (no coup--failed autogolpe in 1992) and Honduras (2009 coup). But if you isolate the 1970s and 1980s, you'd see many more.

In other words, context would make this a richer discussion. Nonetheless, the basic thrust of the paper should be part of any aid discussion. All things being equal, making a military institution in a developing country (economic development should be part of this) strong vis-a-vis the civilian government is a dangerous business.

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Sunday, September 10, 2017

Trump's Doctrine of Retreat

I've written a good amount about how Donald Trump has squandered soft power and lost leverage in Latin America. Now the Senate Appropriations Committee report on its budget for the State Department and Foreign Operations serves up a harsh assessment.

The lessons-learned since September 11, 2001, include the reality that defense alone does not provide for American strength and resolve abroad. Battlefield technology and firepower cannot replace diplomacy and development. The administration’s apparent doctrine of retreat, which also includes distancing the United States from collective and multilateral dispute resolution frameworks, serves only to weaken America’s standing in the world.

Boom! This is not word mincing.

Adam Isacson noted approvingly the support in the bill for the Colombia peace initiative, which Trump has always been lukewarm about. It even has nuggets like this:

The Committee is concerned that representatives of Afro-Colombian, indigenous, and other minority groups, as well as rural women, are not sufficiently integrated into the process of implementing the peace agreement, and urges the Government of Colombia to prioritize engagement with these communities, including through economic and social development programs. The Committee underscores the importance of security and stability in formerly-held FARC areas, particularly in the Pacific coast region. 

Certainly not a Trumpesque policy prescription. The U.S. has a positive role to play in Colombia and elsewhere, and needs the personnel and resources to do so.

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Friday, September 08, 2017

Hurricane Maduro's New Laws

Nicolás Maduro proposed eight new laws to the Constituent Assembly. They're a combination of delusion and fantasy.

They would fix prices for 50 goods while increasing the minimum wage by 40%. The main result will be to increase both scarcity and inflation. There would also be a law that punishes "economic crimes" that vaguely covers speculation and other natural consequences of price fixing and general economic mismanagement.

He also ordered PDVSA to increase oil production. Just snap your fingers and it'll happen. Never mind that PDVSA is a total disaster and production is at a 25 year low.

In a country wracked by economic woes and violence, he also called for increased tourism.

Finally, he announced that Venezuela would soon be free from the clutches of the dollar and would be instead making international payments through a basket of currencies.

“If they pursue us with the dollar, we’ll use the Russian ruble, the yuan, yen, the Indian rupee, the euro,” Maduro said.

I don't think I even know what that means. Maybe he does. Perhaps the best response to all this was from Henrique Capriles:



Hurricane Maduro wipes everything out wherever he goes.

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Thursday, September 07, 2017

Podcast Episode 40: DACA

This morning I went on WFAE's Charlotte Talks to discuss Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). If you're interested, here is the link, where they've already posted the show. Since there were threads I didn't get to follow on the show, I decided to do a podcast as a follow up, so just click here. The key question is whether Congress will actually act or not.


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Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Passing a New Dream Act

Under what circumstances could a Dream Act pass these days? Senator Thom Tillis is putting together what he calls a conservative Dream Act, but defining that will be important. If it denies any pathway to citizenship, then it will face stiff opposition from Democrats. If it provides any avenue for citizenship, it will be stiffly opposed by Republicans. Overall, many House Republicans in particular are opposed to any reform of any kind. It's a small needle to thread.

Further, these days the Senate is more hospitable than the House, where any reform will be controversial. We talk about "bipartisanship" but there is the question of the so-called "Hastert Rule" whereby the majority party does not allow a vote on legislation that might pass with a minority of the majority supporting it. Paul Ryan has no incentive to let anything through that does not have majority Republican support.

Time is a problem. The Dream Act was first proposed in 2001. That's right, before 9/11. Now Congress has six months to overcome all the past challenges, while Trump is simultaneously calling on Congress to pass tax reform, which is not exactly a simple task.

Back in 2010, the Senate could not pass the Dream Act. Critics said this would hurt Republicans, which was not true. It did pass the House. Then in 2013 the Senate passed an immigration reform bill, which the House wouldn't even vote on and John Boehner declared it dead. That didn't hurt Republicans either.

The lesson for Republicans? Not acting will not hurt their re-election chances. In fact, doing nothing might boost their chances in the next primary. And Donald Trump tweeted that he would "revisit" the issue in March 2018 if Congress failed to act. Since Trump has already declared executive order on the issue to be unconstitutional, skeptical Republicans could logically take this to mean he might cancel DACA without a replacement if they don't act.

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Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Trump Ends DACA

The Trump administration has ended DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The statement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions is littered with questionable assumptions and falsehoods. Without irony, he says that ending DACA shows compassion, saves lives, promotes assimilation, helps poor Americans, raises wages, and combats terrorism, all of which are false. Insultingly false. Fly in the face of both common sense and empirical evidence false.

He says:

This does not mean they are bad people or that our nation disrespects or demeans them in any way.

This is also false. Trump himself famously said:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

This is red political meat for xenophobes and not much else. Hundreds of thousands of people who grew up in the United States for reasons entirely beyond their control will be punished to please xenophobes. It is heartless, cruel, and simply mean-spirited.

I've had numerous students protected under DACA, and they are universally the kind of people we want to stay, live, and work in the United States. They will make the United States a better place if we don't abuse them. Consciously destroying their lives is sick. And Trump now owns that.

Update: Trump released his own statement, which contains this whopper:

DACA made it impossible for President Trump to pursue the reforms needed to restore fairness to our immigration system and protect American workers [bold in original].

DACA doesn't make any legislative action impossible. In the statement he provides no basis for the logic.

Another Update: Here is President Obama's response. It is strongly worded and accurate:

Let’s be clear: the action taken today isn’t required legally. It’s a political decision, and a moral question. Whatever concerns or complaints Americans may have about immigration in general, we shouldn’t threaten the future of this group of young people who are here through no fault of their own, who pose no threat, who are not taking away anything from the rest of us. They are that pitcher on our kid’s softball team, that first responder who helps out his community after a disaster, that cadet in ROTC who wants nothing more than to wear the uniform of the country that gave him a chance. Kicking them out won’t lower the unemployment rate, or lighten anyone’s taxes, or raise anybody’s wages.

Update: Paul Ryan's statement.

It is my hope that the House and Senate, with the president’s leadership, will be able to find consensus on a permanent legislative solution that includes ensuring that those who have done nothing wrong can still contribute as a valued part of this great country.

If you rely on presidential leadership now, you're not in particularly good shape.

Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell issued a statement.

President Obama wrongly believed he had the authority to re-write our immigration law. Today’s action by President Trump corrects that fundamental mistake. 
“This Congress will continue working on securing our border and ensuring a lawful system of immigration that works.”

That was the entirety of his statement, which does not generate much confidence in congressional action by March.

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Canada's Stance on NAFTA

There are all sorts of issues popping up as part of the NAFTA negotiations going on. One in particular that caught my eye came from Canada:

Canadian negotiators are demanding the United States roll back so-called "right to work" laws – accused of gutting unions in some U.S. states by starving them of money – as part of the renegotiation of the North American free-trade agreement. The request is part of a push by Ottawa to get the U.S. and Mexico to adopt higher labour standards under the deal.

This not only goes after "right to work" laws but it hits Mexican corporatism directly, which has involved corrupt deals between the government and union leaders. Therefore they rejected the idea.

Overall, it's healthy to have a more public discussion of wages. An important part of my Latin American Politics class is to explain why countries can see strong economic growth and general dissatisfaction at the same time. Even if you have a job, it might pay very little and offer few to no benefits, which has become increasingly problematic in the United States.

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Monday, September 04, 2017

Trump and the Cuba Sonic Attack

The story about U.S. and Canadian diplomats suffering serious injury because of some sort of sonic attack is just weird. It's well known that the Cuban government, like probably almost every other dictatorship, bugs diplomats as much as possible. But it has no incentive to attack the U.S., which gains them nothing while opening Cuba up to retaliation.

Even more curious to me, though, is this sort of thing is low-hanging fruit for Donald Trump. So easy to tweet about, so easy to score political points with hardline Cuban-American conservatives, so easy to bluster and crow. But he isn't.


The United States has stopped short of accusing Cuba of being behind the alleged attacks. The Cuban government has denied any wrongdoing and is said to be cooperating in the ongoing investigation.

Why not? One current hypothesis is that someone--who else but the Russians, really?--was using them to harass U.S. diplomats for U.S. policy elsewhere.

Indeed, US investigators are probing whether a third country was involved as "payback" for actions the US has taken elsewhere and to "drive a wedge between the US and Cuba," a US official told CNN. 

Under this scenario, the U.S. doesn't see Cuba as responsible. But that's weird too. Can the Russians actually do such things in Cuba without Raúl Castro knowing? And if he knew, we're back to square one about why he would take a big risk for no gain.

Somehow, someone convinced Donald Trump that Cuba, which he loves to rail about, is not worth railing about in this instance. Since this sort of thing is right up his alley, it's hard to understand why he is showing restraint. That's almost weirder than the attack itself.

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Saturday, September 02, 2017

Venezuelan-Americans as Voters

The Miami Herald has a piece that is part of a trend toward portraying Venezuelans in Florida as a voting bloc that politicians need to pay attention to.

And as Republicans look to defeat Nelson and maintain majorities throughout Florida in 2018, attacking Democrats on Venezuela could pay off politically, even if Florida Democrats are now talking tough on Venezuela.

Unfortunately, the article only provides quotes from Republicans and has no data. A recent article in Americas Quarterly suggests that in already heavily Cuban-American Florida districts like Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's, Venezuelan-American voters are about 10% of the total. Elsewhere that's much lower. It also notes that Venezuelans do not appear to vote as predictably as Cuban Americans once did. In practice, this could mean agreeing with today's version of the Republican Party on Venezuela but not much else.

I've heard plenty about Venezuelans in the United States voting in Venezuelan elections (where the government has made it as inconvenient as possible, such as forcing people in Florida to vote in new Orleans, knowing how they lean) but not so much in U.S. elections. Plus, of course, when they arrive from Venezuela they are not eligible to vote so this takes a lot of time. However, they have the money and the successful lobbying model of the Cuban American community to emulate.

It does mean that candidates will find themselves needing to address the crisis in Venezuela more than they did in the past. The 5-10% in a district may or may not sway an election, but if they jam the polls during primaries then you need to pay attention to them even to get to the general election.

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Thursday, August 31, 2017

What Guatemalans Think of CICIG

Liz Zechmeister and Dinorah Azpuru published a brief report on Guatemalan public opinion, based on LAPOP data. The upshot:

In summary, recent survey data show that Guatemalans experience high levels of corruption victimization, have fairly cynical views of the proportion of politicians who are corrupt, hold the CICIG in very high regard, have moderate levels of trust in the Constitutional Court, and fairly high levels of trust in the MP. In such a climate, attempts by President Morales to defy the CICIG, the Constitutional Court, and/or the MP may risk running afoul of the court of public opinion. 

This is on the verge of being a hypothesis. If the public gains trust in state institutions intended to fight corruption, that can have an impact (in what exact manner, I don't know) on political efforts to undermine those institutions. At this point we'll just have to read the news to watch how that public trust translates into pressure on the president.

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Venezuela's Future

Andrés Cañizález has a piece in Global Americans about the possibility for democratization in Venezuela. There's not much room for optimism:

But as important as international condemnation is, collective pressure thus far has failed to have a critical role in triggering a democratic transition and will continue to do so, especially if political will in Venezuela remains challenged by just a few in power. The international community has limited influence over an autocratic regime that has no intentions of democratizing or yielding its  absolute control of national wealth, at least not in the remainder of 2017.

It's useful to read Elías Jaua's opinion piece in TeleSur along with it. He basically argues for a fully Cuban-style system, with state control over all distribution of income, instilling Communist military doctrine both in the military and society, and other similar measures. This he calls "liberation."

And indeed, this is the direction Venezuela will likely take, or at the very least the direction Nicolás Maduro will attempt to take. We have seen already that the government will not engage in meaningful dialogue (with "meaningful" involving concessions or acceptance of the opposition's legitimate right to political power), that the opposition can't seem to unite, and that Latin America will not unite in condemnation. That gives Maduro political space, and expanding the state's control over society is the logical step for the intransigent, especially when resources are becoming scarcer.

Cañiláz's article mostly hopes for more defections and increased youth disaffection, but will they matter as the state increases its control?

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Wednesday, August 30, 2017

U.S. Role in the Honduran Coup

Jake Johnston has an article that The Intercept entitled, "How Pentagon Officials May Have Encouraged a 2009 Coup in Honduras." I highly recommend checking it out. There's no smoking gun, really, and the main new thing we learn is that there were discussions of some sort between U.S. and Honduran military personnel immediately prior to the coup. The core conclusion, however, is really this part:


The new information paints a picture of an American government with no single policy, but rather, of bloated bureaucracies acting on competing interests. Hidden actors during the crisis tilted Honduras toward chaos, undermined official U.S. policy after the coup, and ushered in a new era of militarization that has left a trail of violence and repression in its wake.

At the time, I wrote about how then-Senator Jim DeMint clashed with John Kerry. As Johnston notes, along with Connie Mack, DeMint was working actively in favor of the Honduran military. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama's own perceptions of the coup (specifically whether to call it a coup) diverged. Further, despite all the human rights talk, U.S. military aid starting flowing in not long after the 2009 presidential election, and abuses worsened.

Johnston's narrative shows how the Honduran coup plotters were looking for positive signals from the United States (an issue that Kathryn Sikkink discusses in her book Mixed Signals, which I am actually using right now in my U.S.-Latin American relations seminar). According to Johnston's account, they went looking in particular at the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, where they got an informal positive sense. It's hard to believe they took that as official approval, but if it happened then they certainly would've been heartened. They also knew for sure that they would find strong congressional support in the U.S.

Overall, though, Johnston's main thesis as stated above is critical. As we all saw at the time, U.S. policy veered around and a multitude of voices said contradictory things. President Obama would sometimes make clear statements but they wouldn't be followed with action. Unfortunately, and I also noted this at the time, Latin America waited for the U.S. to take the lead, with even Hugo Chávez begging Obama to do something! In the midst of that mess, the coup government was able to wait things out and Honduran democracy, such as it was, suffered.

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Human Rights Abuses in Venezuela

The UN Human Rights Office issued a report citing "extensive human rights violations and abuses" in Venezuela. Here's the full text.

Credible and consistent accounts of victims and witnesses indicate that security forces systematically used excessive force to deter demonstrations, crush dissent and instil fear. 

The report also rejects the whole "economic war" and "both sides are equally responsible" government line.

Starting in 2014, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has experienced an aggravation in the economic crisis derived from the drop in the international price of oil and other factors such as currency and price controls, lack of investment in infrastructure and in the production system, and the heavy dependency on oil revenues to import basic goods. 

What a change. Hugo Chávez loved the UN as a forum to rail against the United States (like his famous 2005 speech). He worked the rooms at UN meetings. Now Venezuela is becoming a pariah.

As you might guess, the report calls on the government to start respecting Venezuelans' rights. Instead, the opposite is happening, as the Constituent Assembly issued a decree allowing opposition leaders who support sanctions to be arrested. We'll see more such decrees in the days to come, often created quickly in response to events on the ground to allow for wider arrests and repression.

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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

ELN Trying to Increase Leverage

The Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) attacked an oil pipeline in Colombia, which compelled the government to shut it off. The ELN has been in talks with the government and this sort of attack is intended to put pressure on President Santos to make more concessions. This is a tricky move because the ELN will also need to prove it can stop being violent. In July 2015, for example, the FARC announced a unilateral ceasefire, which almost certainly helped get to the peace negotiation finish line (the ceasefire became bilateral in August 2016). There had been talk that the ELN would do the same to coincide with the Pope's visit, so I guess they figure they should get some bombings in beforehand to remind the government of their strength.

Meanwhile, the hypocrisy of bombing pipelines is evident. The ELN claims to be on the side of the rural poor, while ensuring that raw oil periodically gets spilled in rural areas. All those spills mean woe for farmers, those who rely on fishing, etc.

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Monday, August 28, 2017

Mexico's Statement to Trump

The Mexican government released a statement in English in response to Donald Trump's statement and tweets about Mexico paying for a wall and possibly terminating NAFTA. They took the very high road. I suppose it takes a Donald Trump to make Enrique Peña Nieto appear serious and presidential. I like this part in particular:

Mexico will not negotiate NAFTA, nor any other aspect of the bilateral relationship, through social media or any other news platform.

And indeed, Trump's statements are intended to achieve two goals. The first is to intimidate Mexico with a hard line, which Trump actually appears to believe strengthens his bargaining position. I suppose it must've worked sometimes in real estate for him to keep trying it.

The second is to send his core xenophobic supporters the message that he still dislikes Mexico and Mexicans. He's gone all over the map about who would pay for the wall, but those people want to hear that Mexico is a nasty place and its nasty people will pay so periodically he reassures them on that point.

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Saturday, August 26, 2017

Karl Ove Knausgaard's Autumn

Karl Ove Knausgaard's Autumn is not part of his My Struggle sextet (the last of which does not come out in English until next year) but it's the next best thing. It is a series of short essays and letters to his unborn daughter, emphasizing the beautiful (he uses that word a lot, too much really) in ordinary things. Toilets, wasps, chewing gum, you name it. He's so good at making the ordinary interesting that I liked them despite how mundane they sound. The chapters all wonder about how we relate to the world, even how our bodies open up to it.

But being the compulsively honest person he is, even to his daughter he writes about labia, piss, and vomit. And there are passages like this:

The stars are out tonight. I was just outside taking a leak on the lawn, something I do only when everyone is asleep and I'm alone (p. 85).

No context, nothing. That's how he rolls. Yet at the same time he is so earnest. He loves his children dearly and wants to explain the world--all of it--to them.

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Friday, August 25, 2017

Venezuela Complains about International Press

The Venezuelan government did a study of front page news in foreign newspapers and complains that Nicolás Maduro's rambling press conference did not receive much coverage. Instead, papers focused on Trump's military comments and Luisa Ortega's flight from the country.

They conclude that this is the result of censorship and hegemony. It's more accurate to say that the latter two issues are actually news, whereas Maduro repeating himself is not. We heard nothing new at the press conference, except for the normal vague pronouncements and not-credible assertions of being ready for sanctions.

From a PR perspective, this is such a big difference between Maduro and Hugo Chávez. Maduro is boring and rarely has anything new to say. Chávez suffered from neither.

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