Friday, September 23, 2016

Venezuela Recall Getting Harder and Harder

The Venezuelan government announced that the recall referendum definitely won't take place this year. This is no surprise. Last month I wrote the following:

The government is stuck. It does not want this to go forward quickly, and is undermining it in a number of different ways (such as lawsuits). But it also cannot just say it won't happen, especially since the international community has set its mind on having a vote. The most likely scenario is allowing a vote on January 11 (yes, I could even see it being that brazen) which, if lost, would still keep Chavismo in power a little longer.

And now we hear:

After meeting with members of the government and the opposition, the National Electoral Council said on Wednesday that a potential plebiscite "could be held in the middle of the first quarter of 2017".

You could see that one coming from a mile away. The government will lose the referendum if it is free and fair, so wants to postpone it as long as it possibly can and make it as onerous as it possibly can.

The next question is whether the government will drag its feet, then declare there aren't enough signatures. Already it announced that the 20% signature requirement must be met in each state, and is limiting the number of voting machines available for the three days of voting. After years of bragging about how many elections Hugo Chávez won, now we're at a point where Chavistas hate the very thought of elections. For them, desperate times mean desperate measures.


Thursday, September 22, 2016

Cubans React to Donald Trump

The Associated Press has a story on how Cubans are worried about Donald Trump's about face on Cuba policy.

Cubans are suddenly envisioning the possibility of a U.S. president who would undo measures popular among virtually everyone on the island, from hard-line communists to advocates of greater freedom and democracy.

Cuba is getting opened up to the United States precisely as U.S. electoral politics are unraveling in disturbing ways. This made me wonder whether ordinary Cubans are also wondering whether democracy is all that it's cracked up to be. Why would any country, much less one with very little experience with democracy, want to follow a model that led to the presidential race we're experiencing now?


Nathan Hill's The Nix

I read Nathan Hill's The Nix (2016) after reading good reviews and seeing it had an angle of academic satire. As it turned out, I loved the book even though the academic part was pretty minimal and mostly at the beginning. Samuel is an unhappy English professor at a small Chicago college and was dealing with a plagiarizing student, which had the ring of truth but the over-the-top flavor of satire.

The book skewers everything as it tells Samuel's story, his mother's story, and others', moving back and forth between 2011 and 1968, focusing on the DNC in Chicago. The core themes are how deeply the past informs the present (he keeps referring to children's "choose your own adventure" books and even structures a bit of the book that way) but also how we can make our own reality. The latter point is driven home in a sad way by an addictive gamer.

It's a funny and incisive book, with all kinds of twisting and turning (and a big plot revelation toward the end). Even with all the jumping around in time, I found myself glued to it. My only quibble is that in the last pages, all the satire suddenly evaporates and it gets sentimental as Hill ties up loose ends. I kept wondering why he got so nice. I'm very glad the rest of the book wasn't that way.


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Funding Peace vs. Funding War

At the UN, President Obama rightly listed support for the Colombian peace process and opening up to Cuba as important achievements of his presidency.

We opened relations with Cuba, helped Colombia end Latin America's longest war, and we welcome a democratically elected leader of Myanmar to this Assembly. 

Unfortunately, Republicans oppose the Colombia deal (which is enshrined in their platform) and after years of funding war, appear to be unwilling to fund peace.

The US president has also vowed to increased aid for Colombia’s peace process, but Obama left unsaid that he may not be able to follow through on his $450 million aid pledge. 
While the $352 million typically sent via Plan Colombia will continue, the Republican-dominated Congress is unlikely to approve the additional $90 million before elections in November, leaving the budget to the discretion of Obama’s successor.

As for Cuba, Donald Trump has already shifted on that, moving from support to opposition.

The bottom line is that both initiatives were sharp turns away from past U.S. policy practices, were highly popular in Latin America, and were non-military. As a result, they're controversial.


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Fernando López's The Feathers of Condor

I read Fernando López's The Feathers of the Condor: Transnational State Terrorism, Exiles, and Civilian Anticommunism in South America (2016) for review in Journal of Cold War Studies. Here's how I start the review:

As previously classified or hidden documents slowly reach the light of day, we’re starting to understand more about Operation Condor, which was a coordinated effort by South American dictatorships to exterminate their political opponents during the mid-1970s. Fernando López has written an exhaustively researched book that aims to provide a fresh perspective on the existing literature (especially the work of J. Patrice McSherry, who wrote the preface). 
The book has three intertwined arguments. First, it was much more difficult for these countries to join forces than typically realized. Second, the role of civilians needs more attention. Third, the militaries intentionally overstated the threat posed by the Junta de Coordinación Revolucionaria, a regional effort to unite guerrilla forces. Instead, the primary goal of the endeavor was to attack their political opposite and disrupt their connections to transnational human rights organizations.

It can be a bit of a dense book at times, but it successfully broadens the discussion beyond just the dictatorships that formed Operation Condor and the assumption that naturally they should get along. It was not just a military operation but rather was deeply connected to the radical civilian right as well.

It was published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing (which I had not heard of) and at least right now doesn't seem available on Amazon US. That's unfortunate, because I think a lot of people could find it interesting but it's not so easy to find.


Podcast Episode Two: Nicaragua

In episode two of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk to Mike Allison (who blogs at Central American Politics) about Nicaragua. Here is the iTunes link--go listen and subscribe!


Blindly Applying Plan Colombia

Nick Miroff wrote an article in the Washington Post about Plan Colombia, which although it cites dissenting voices, has an overall message of success. Boz gives some more context about how "success" is achieved (e.g. negotiations are sometimes required).

The problem is that I think the context gets drowned out. Just as Russell Crandall wrote about using El Salvador as a model, Plan Colombia gets widely seen as something that can be easily applied elsewhere (like Afghanistan). The structure of the conflict, the nature of the government, the high human costs, all these get ignored.


Monday, September 19, 2016


I watched the movie Colonia (2015), which is about Chile's Colonia Dignidad in the immediate aftermath of the 1973 coup. On the one hand, I was glad to see the issue getting some mainstream treatment. On the other, as a movie it was underwhelming.

The plot revolves around a German in Chile who gets involved in the Unidad Popular, and the young Lufthansa flight attendant he meets (she is Emma Watson, and I have to admit it's hard not to see Hermione). He is captured and taken to Colonia Dignidad to be tortured, and she comes and joins the colony voluntary to rescue him. I won't spoil anything.

The Paul Schafer (now deceased real-life leader of Colonia Dignidad) actor did a great job making him incredibly creepy, which he was. But throughout the movie, I found myself suspending disbelief too many times. An activist hears about the coup on the morning of 9/11, then goes out and takes pictures of soldiers? The torturers of Colonia Dignidad accept that the activist is mentally disabled because of the torture so give him freedom of movement while restricting everyone else? And the last scene seemed so much like the last scene of the movie Argo that it bugged me. But the atmosphere in the movie was good--it was an oppressive and scary time.

If you've never heard of Colonia Dignidad, rent the movie. It's better to start with this fictionalized account than not to know anything. Use this article--which quotes my friend and colleague Peter Siavelis at Wake Forest--from the Telegraph as an intro.


Sunday, September 18, 2016

Background on the Colombia Peace Deal

For a great analysis of the FARC peace agreement, with a lot of background, check out this detailed post by Steven Taylor at OSU's Origins site, which also includes some cool old photos.

For the October 2 vote itself, here is the really tricky part:

Between general skepticism in large parts of the populace and the uribista opposition, it is unclear how the plebiscite vote will play out. For one thing, Santos’ own approval ratings are poor, with various polls taken in July and August placing it anywhere from 20% to 29%. 
In regards to the plebiscite itself, a poll from Datexco published on August 24 in the Colombian daily El Tiempo showed the Yes position at 32.1% and the No position at 29.9%, with 9.7% not having a position and another 26.9% stating they would not vote. This poll further indicated that the final tally would have Yes edging No 51.8% to 48.2% if the undecided and abstainers were removed.

One thing I keep wondering is what potential "no" voters think that vote will accomplish besides just disapproval of the FARC? Perhaps they figure it will be a sign of strength and that they're winning on the battlefield anyway. Those are dangerous assumptions.


Saturday, September 17, 2016

Trump's 180 on Cuba

After saying for months that he agreed with the Obama administration's policy toward Cuba, Donald Trump took a 180 degree turn. He's done more 180 degree turns than most ballet dancers. He thinks, and apparently Politico also thinks, that Cuban Americans in Florida are opposed to Obama's policies. The evidence points the opposite direction. It's been years since there has been a clear pro-embargo bloc in Florida. That demographic ship has sailed.

I have to figure that his belief that it's still the year 2000 in Florida relates to the quality of his advisors (whoever the hell they are) and to the small handful of hardcore Cuban American lawmakers who make a lot of noise. He desperately needs Florida and can't think of any other way to attract votes.


Thursday, September 15, 2016

Non-Aligned Summit and Venezuela

Venezuela is hosting a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement this weekend, and there is a draft document that ultimately will become a formal show of support for the government. This isn't surprising, but neither does it have all that much relevance.

The ultimate demonstration of the lack of interest is the following:

Heads of state from the 120-nation Cold War-era bloc are invited to Venezuela's Margarita island over the weekend, though with only the leaders of Zimbabwe, Iran, Cuba, Bolivia and Ecuador currently thought to be coming, it could be a poor turnout.
As guest lists go, that lacks oomph. But even sympathetic news outlets can't get much better. TeleSur has an article on "five things you need to know about the Non-Aligned Movement," which has a bunch of pictures from the 1970s and statements from Iran about Puerto Rico.


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Timochenko as President?

That's what a billboard says in Colombia, warning about what would happen if you vote "Yes" in the October 2 referendum. The idea, of course, is to scare people, in a manner that is reminiscent of the Pinochet's government's dire warnings about voting "No" in the 1988 Chilean referendum (there would be more violence, etc, etc).

The thing about this particular scare tactic is that a majority of Colombians would have to vote for Timochenko, even supposing he ran. So yes, in a democracy you win with a popular majority (well, in Colombia anyway, not the United States!). If he got a majority he would become president. But I think it's safe to say that will never happen. Unlike other guerrilla groups that put down their weapons, the FARC is incredibly unpopular. The democratic left in Colombia will take many years to develop.


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Podcast 1

I am experimenting with podcasts, so this is just a test as I figure out RSS feed. Here is the first podcast.

Update: after much tinkering, I've submitted the podcast to iTunes and am waiting for it to be reviewed.


More Can Be Less in US Policy Toward Latin America

Peter Meyer at the Congressional Research Service wrote a report on the Organization of American States that neatly sums up the paradox of U.S. policy in Latin America.

On the one hand:

The relative decline of U.S. influence in the Western Hemisphere has manifested itself within the OAS on a number of high profile decisions in recent years, including a 2009 decision to repeal the 1962 resolution that had suspended Cuba from participating in the organization.

And on the other:

Even as some Members of Congress assert that the organization acts against U.S. interests, a number of policymakers in the broader region argue that the OAS imposes U.S. policies. Given these views, some analysts maintain that “any reform to the OAS that begins in Washington, especially in the U.S. Congress, can have the potential to backfire” and provoke opposition in the hemisphere.

In other words, there are constant calls for the United States to exert its influence more (just yesterday, the WSJ asked the Obama Administration to be more aggressive with Venezuela, albeit without any specifics) but sometimes exerting more influence leads to less influence because there is backlash. To the extent that the US has become less influential in the OAS (which I could quibble with) it is in large part because in the past the US tried to be too influential.

The trick is finding the sweet spot without doing something stupid.


Monday, September 12, 2016

China's Getting Sick of Venezuela

Kejal Vyas at the Wall Street Journal dropped a bombshell yesterday with this article on China's position on Venezuelan debt. He argues that China sees Venezuela as increasingly dangerous for its citizens and increasingly such a bad credit risk that it won't throw good money after bad.

China’s envoy in Caracas conveyed concerns over security and Venezuela’s debt repayment during emergency meetings held between April and June with dozens of representatives from Chinese state companies, according to four officials from Chinese companies. 
“The consensus was that no new money was going to be invested,” said one of the officials. “There was a clear message from up top: Let them fall,” said the official. He said Chinese companies were moving employees to Colombia and Panama for personal-safety reasons and because many Chinese-led projects have ground to a halt.

Whew! I talked in my U.S.-Latin American relations class today about how there has often been concern about the political implications of Chinese investment in Latin America, but that China often acts strictly business-like. It doesn't want influence in Venezuela or ideological togetherness. It wants oil and cash. The real concern is that China gets sick of Venezuelan debt and leaves a huge mess that will rock the region, thus also precipitating some sort of U.S. response.


Friday, September 09, 2016

Who Are Trump's Latin America Advisors?

For those of us who study Latin America, it's always interesting to see who candidate advisors are because it can give you a sense of how much change or continuity we're likely to see if they win. At Latin America Goes Global, Chris Sabatini and Mishella Romo dig some legwork to find out who Donald Trump's advisors were for Latin America.

The answer is that we don't know much at all, and somehow The Blog also gets mentioned.

What we do know since this piece was published, however, is that he's not even president but Trump has already gotten a Mexican cabinet member fired, just for being stupid enough to invite Trump in the first place.


Thursday, September 08, 2016

ASA Tries to Figure Out Social Media

Sociologists took on the task of producing a report on the use of social media in Sociology, which translates easily to other disciplines. There is plenty to like in the report--concern about attacks on women and minorities who are in the public eye, for example, or even just the desire to make sure people get professional credit for work they're doing.

But at the same time it rubs me the wrong way. What I've loved about using social media is the almost total lack of rules or structure. You do what works for you, which may or may not conform to what others are doing. What the report really wants to do is to start dissecting it, quantifying it, creating criteria for it, and somehow transforming it into data for merit, tenure, and promotion.

A criterion for excellence might therefore be the extent to which authors succeed in advancing practical/policy implications/perspectives grounded in sociological research.

As someone who tries to encourage use of social media, I hate the idea of thinking so carefully about whether you're properly "grounded" or fitting criteria. Another criterion they mention is "mastering" the skills of writing for social media. I wouldn't want anyone to spend time trying to figure out what that means--is sarcasm a form of mastery? I don't even know. I just feel like the report is trying too hard.

Perhaps one problem is that as far as I can tell, the chair of the subcommittee that wrote the report actually does not participate in social media at all. Another issue is that the report actually never mentions what problem it is trying to solve, beyond a "vacuum of standards" (that phrase just makes me wince). I'd be more interested to first see a report about the specifics of the problem, if there is one--do professors feel they are getting too little credit? What in fact are they doing?


Iran's Still Not A Dire Threat in Latin America

It's disappointing to see Foreign Affairs peddling the "Iran is a Dire Threat in Latin America" message. I have not heard of the author, Ilan Berman, but you know there's a potential problem when his own Wikipedia page touts how he's an expert because Lou Dobbs said so. He was also an advisor to Ted Cruz.

But on to the argument. He says countries that have slow economies are bad trading partners, which makes no sense. He says ALBA is politically relevant, which makes no sense. He uses TeleSur as a credible source, which makes no sense. He says there is an anti-American axis in Latin America, which makes no sense if you know anything about the current political climate in the region.

This same argument has been made for a decade or more, with basically no change. Iran is always just about there, we're told. Hawks gotta hawk.

In conclusion:

[T]here’s still precious little appetite in official Washington to acknowledge the full extent of Iran’s involvement in the Americas, let alone confront it.

Gimme a break. And Foreign Affairs, why are you publishing this?


Wednesday, September 07, 2016

SECOLAS 2017 Call for Papers

I go to SECOLAS every year because it's always a great conference. In 2017 it's on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill, and I encourage everyone to consider proposing a paper.

Proposal Submission Deadline: November 1, 2016

Conference Theme:
“Between Revolution and Rapprochement in the Americas”

SECOLAS welcomes submissions on any aspect of Latin American and/or Caribbean Studies. We encourage papers and panels that address the conference theme (broadly conceived).
Graduate student presenters will be eligible to apply for the Edward H. Moseley Student Paper Award for the best paper presented at the SECOLAS meeting.
After the conference, all presenters will be eligible to submit their paper for publication consideration in the SECOLAS Annals issue of The Latin Americanist, an international, peer-reviewed journal published by SECOLAS and Wiley Blackwell.
Fill out the SECOLAS 2017 Proposal Form and submit it to the following email address:
The deadline for submissions is November 1, 2016.
SECOLAS 2017 Program Chairs
History and Social Sciences
Jackie Sumner
Department of History
Presbyterian College
Literature and Humanities
José Manuel Batista
Department of Languages and Culture Studies
UNC, Charlotte


What Venezuelans Want Versus What Venezuelans Have

As Francisco Toro has pointed out, the Venezuelan Supreme Tribunal has ruled all National Assembly decision null. This is a self-coup, such as the 1993 and 2000 efforts in Guatemala and Peru, respectively. The new twist is that Congress is not dissolved, but rather ignored. This comes on the heels of pretty much countless anti-democratic measures by the government, which have intensified after the death of Hugo Chávez.

According to the new Latinobarómetro poll, support for democracy in Venezuela is the highest in the region at 77%. This has dropped during Nicolás Maduro's term but is still higher than in the pre-Chávez era.

Meanwhile, only 31% of Venezuelans believe that it's OK to have a anti-democratic government as long as problems get solved, which is the second lowest in the region.

72% of Venezuelan believe that democracy can solve the problems they have, which is the highest in the region.

Where Venezuela is low is government approval (20%, second lowest), satisfaction with life (58%, lowest in Latin America), image of progress in the country (6%, second lowest), satisfaction with the economy (7%, second lowest), ear of remaining unemployed (62%, second worst), and problems with hunger (72%, by far the worst).

What do we take from this?

Venezuelans feel like their country is falling apart, but they believe in democracy and want it to work. Their government is anti-democratic, which they don't like. Now they don't even have a functioning legislature anymore. They don't want this authoritarian mess but the democratic channels are blocked and they don't want anyone trying a non-democratic solution (even if there was military support, which does not seem likely).

This means remaining stuck until the next time they can exercise their vote, which should be next year, but even victory there means Chavismo for two more years unless Chavismo itself implodes from internal dissension.


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