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

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.

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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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