Saturday, September 20, 2014

Trade Within Latin America

Shannon O'Neil notes the increase in "South-South" trade, meaning between Latin American countries. Two points in particular are worth briefly expanding on:

First, it is true that trade with China with increasing. But so is trade with a lot of countries. If you cherry pick China numbers only, then you end up with all the op-eds about China gaining power (she does not actually make this point--it's just my pet peeve). When you look at the bigger picture, what you see is diversification, which is a positive development. As she notes, Latin America has more to gain with intra-regional trade than with China.

Second, the glass half empty part of the equation is that trade diversification is not the same as product diversification. While it's good to have more diverse trading partners, it's not as valuable in the long-term when you're exporting soy (or whatever) to all of them.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Richard Blanco's For All Of Us, One Today

I read Richard Blanco's For All Of Us, One Today, which is a short memoir of the 2012 Inaugural Poet. I came away with two impressions. One, he's a great poet. His poem América, for example, is too cool. Second, what a nice guy. He's committed to expressing what it means to be American and an immigrant, with an unjaded wonder.

As he grapples with writing an inaugural poem, he asks himself if he truly loves America:

I discovered that yes, I truly loved America, but not with a blind love or blind patriotism. Rather, with a love that's much like loving another person, a love that demands effort, asks us to give and take and forgive and constantly examine promises spoken and unspoken (p. 32).

What a great way to describe "love of country," which otherwise is too often a blind thing.

What I also liked was how his Cuban family revered poets, yet Americans don't. He notes how in school he never anything by a living poet. I saw myself there because I am not really into poetry, perhaps mostly because I don't have any exposure.


Marina Silva and Foreign Policy

Marina Silva said in an interview that she would seek improved ties with the United States and also would push Cuba harder on democracy and human rights.

In a wide-ranging, hour-long interview, Silva said that as president she would seek bilateral trade deals and better relations with the U.S. and Europe, and would push for improved human rights in allies such as Cuba. 
Asked whether she would continue Brazil's strong investment in and political support for regimes like Cuba, Venezuela, China and Iran, Silva said that dialogue is essential with each — but that her personal convictions mean Brazil would be more vocal in pushing human rights. 
"The best way to help the Cuban people is by understanding that they can make a transition from the current regime to democracy, and that we don't need to cut any type of relations," she said. "It's enough that we help through the diplomatic process, so that these (human rights) values are pursued.
Both of those are nice to hear. Dilma Rousseff has already been smoothing over relations with the U.S., so it appears that U.S.-Brazilians will improve no matter who wins. At least as long as there are no more revelations of counterproductive U.S. behavior.
Further, it is refreshing to hear this about Cuba, which is too rarely heard around Latin America. It is entirely possible to engage a country while also saying it should be more democratic and respect the human rights of its own people. 


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Latinos and the NC Senate Race

Reporters from News Channel 14 just came to my office to ask some questions about the Latino vote. Of course, that prompted me to try and get my facts straight.

Kay Hagan has been polling well recently (up 3-6% or so) against Thom Tillis, with the added factor that Libertarian Sean Haugh is likely drawing more Tillis-leaning voters than Hagan-leaning (in May 2014 he polled at 5%).

As of today, Latinos constitute 1.9% of registered voters in North Carolina (and currently only about a quarter of Latinos in NC are eligible to vote at all). Latinos vote in lower numbers than other racial/ethnic groups, and this is a midterm election to boot. Further, 37% of Latino registered voters are 18-29 years of age, so less likely to vote in the first place.

However, in a close race--as this one is--any push is important. The Latin American Coalition is hoping to register 7,500 new voters for this election. That's no easy task (for context, 123,763 Latinos are registered to vote right now) but if they can do it they may well make a difference.


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Cuba Embargo and MLB

Dara Lind has a fascinating piece at Vox about Major League Baseball, Cuba, and human smuggling, which has gained a lot of attention because of Yasiel Puig's harrowing experience. U.S. immigration law and MLB draft policy have established very particular incentives:

A Cuban player can't negotiate a contract with a major-league team while he's in Cuba, thanks to the embargo — and the Cuban government's tendency to imprison anyone who's a threat to defect. But that doesn't mean he's not allowed to negotiate a contract with a major-league team somewhere else. 
The MLB says that a player who's established residency in a third country (most often Mexico or the Dominican Republic) is allowed to negotiate with any major league team. So instead of working out a contract with only one team, like players who go directly to the US do, a player in a third country is able to put all 30 major-league teams in a bidding war against each other.

So you get out of Cuba, but then get smuggled to another Latin American country to negotiate your MLB contract. The smugglers are increasingly tied to Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations. Once an MLB team finally signs the player, they're directly or indirectly paying criminals.

As it turns out, the problem has a simple solution:

If the US government lifted its embargo with Cuba entirely, it would solve the problem — major league teams would be allowed to sign players who were living in Cuba, thus allowing them to come to the US with a job (and a visa) in hand. That doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon.

Simple in logic, that is, not politically. But perhaps there is even a way to achieve it within the context of the embargo:

But Rodriques of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime thinks that the US government could actually create a limited exception to the embargo that would apply solely to athletes. It made an exception in the 1980s for artistic and literary materials, so it's not totally unprecedented. If the US did that, it would eliminate the need for the "special license," so it would make the process for Cuban players much more straightforward — and safer.

She doesn't expand on that but I assume she means MLB teams could negotiate directly with players while they're on Cuba. But how would that work unless the Cuban government gave permission (and presumably took its own cut?).


Monday, September 15, 2014

Indigenous in Bolivia

One reviewer of my 2nd edition U.S. and Latin American Relations textbook referenced the 2012 Bolivian census to get a more accurate percentage of Bolivians who are of Aymara or Quechua descent. Reading it, though, I realized it's not terribly useful because it only asks respondents over the age of 15 how they self-identify. That leaves out just around 1/3 of the population.

I understand we might say that children 15 and younger are not in a position to self-identify, but without them how do we make definitive conclusions about the entire population, especially one so young?

Really, the more you look, the more obviously difficult it is to get a firm grip on the percentage of the population that is "indigenous." In 2001, for example, some 20% of the Bolivian population self-identified as indigenous despite not having any "recorded ethnolinguistic marker" that would suggest they likely would be.


Friday, September 12, 2014

Progress on 2nd Edition of U.S. and Latin American Relations

Continuing on my year-long periodic posts (the last one was in July) on doing the revisions/additions to the 2nd edition of U.S. and Latin American Relations, I've received the three anonymous external reviews and they are all positive. They all also have many suggestions and corrections--14 pages single-spaced in all. The peer review process in academia is often screwy and even mean, but these comments are really helpful.

And humbling. If you have someone extremely knowledgeable reading (and doing so thoroughly), then he/she will find the errors. This gets down to noting, for example, that the Sandino rebellion started in 1927, not 1926 as I had written, because in 1926 he was a general fighting a civil war but it had not yet become an anti-imperialist war. Obviously, these observations improve the quality of the book immensely. I do get frustrated that I made them in the first place!

At any rate, my goal is to get all of these revisions completed within four weeks.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Venezuela Likely to Take Security Council Seat

It's quite possible that Venezuela will assume a two-year rotating seat on the UN Security Council. In 2006 Hugo Chávez tried as hard as he could to get it, but the U.S. helped push Guatemala, then accept Panama as a compromise (I blogged a lot about that circus as it happened). I disagree with this logic about why Venezuela is not being challenged this time around:

The action reflects a decade-long shift in the region away from the United States. Conservative leaders from Peru to El Salvador that in 2006 had no fear of picking a fight with Chavez have since been voted out of office. Even nations that differ with Venezuela’s policies, such as Chile and Colombia, want to avoid a confrontation that harkens back to the polarized politics of the Cold War, when meddling by Washington was frequent.

This is the pat answer of the day--Latin America is moving away from the U.S. That logic ignores the following:

1. After 2006, Latin American countries agreed to take turns. It is now Venezuela's turn. If that was the agreement, then that was the agreement.

Following that display of disunity, regional governments agreed in private to alternate representation in a certain order. Under those procedures, it’s now Venezuela’s turn.

2. The current president of the U.S. is Obama, not Bush. Obama is far less confrontational and in this case must go up against the fact that a regional agreement way back then put Venezuela in this position now.

3. There is no evidence that either Chile or Colombia base their foreign policy decisions on trying not to harken back to the Cold War.

BTW, I happened to see on Twitter that Boz was also writing a post, with similar logic. He makes an additional point worth considering:

Another important note left out of the AP report: Venezuela will be replacing Argentina. While Venezuela's rhetoric will probably be sharper, their voting won't be that far off from the seat's current occupant. As the shift from Argentina to Venezuela isn't shifting the balance of voting on the UNSC much, it shouldn't worry the US.

So this will not be some sudden shift.

One last thought: at least in this case Nicolás Maduro is showing more acumen than his mentor by remaining quiet and avoiding the heated public rhetoric. That strategy would have backfired.


ISIL and the U.S. Border

In response to a question from John McCain, a DHS official said that some ISIS "adherents" were saying on Facebook and Twitter that they should infiltrate the U.S.-Mexico border.

 Francis Taylor, under secretary for intelligence and analysis at DHS, told senators during a hearing that ISIL supporters are known to be plotting ways to infiltrate the United States through the border. 
“There have been Twitter, social media exchanges among ISIL adherents across the globe speaking about that as a possibility,” Taylor told Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) in response to a question about “recent reports on Twitter and Facebook of messages that would urge infiltration into the U.S. across our southwestern border.” 
“Certainly any infiltration across our border would be a threat,” Taylor said, explaining that border security agents are working to tighten measures that would prevent this from taking place. 
“I’m satisfied we have the intelligence and the capability on our border that would prevent that activity,” Taylor said.

Hmm. They said this publicly, knowing full well that plenty of people, including those in the United States government, would read it. They are either a) trying to spark a reaction; or b) so stupid that clearly they don't have the capability anyway.

This is never going to end. There will always be terrorist groups trying to get the U.S. riled up to overreact. It's just the names that change.

Such an operation is harder than you think. You have to get into Mexico and get to the border region without attracting attention, which means being fluent in Mexican Spanish. Then you have to avoid getting the attention of all the many individuals, gangs, etc. involved in getting people across the border, all of whom are talking a lot. There is no guarantee of any kind that they'll view you kindly, even with bribery. Even then they may rat on you. Then you have to traverse the same awful lands that have killed thousands of other people.

As with many other issues, this one falls under the category of "stay vigilant and don't overreact."


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

War and Revolution in Russia, 1914-1922

I read Christopher Read's War and Revolution in Russia, 1914-1922. I've been periodically reading about WWI when I have a chance given the centennial. The book is a synthesis and tries to place the revolution more in the context of WWI.

Funny thing, I really enjoyed it but got hung up a bit on chapter one. Among other things it included an in-text Wikipedia reference and this sentence: "Perhaps if the horror that was about to be unleashed had been more widely understood more would have been done to prevent it" (p. 20). Well, yes.

Get past that, though, and you have a nicely written, concise book that is widely accessible to people like me who do not know the literature. What you see first is the amazing incompetence of the Tsar. I wish Read might have said a little more why he thinks the Tsar believed the war was necessary, considering that the quick Russian mobilization was an important factor in pushing the war along.

Then the Tsar just resigns abruptly and Russia suffers a first period of uncertainty while the Bolsheviks figure out what to do. Reading Vladimir Lenin's writings in that context shows how much his theory was just responding to events, so that his "truths" changed all the time as deemed necessary. Events and necessity drove theory. One thing I hadn't really known was that immediately after the Tsar was deposed, popular support for the war remained high. It took a while for the Bolsheviks to change that view.

Finally, the Bolsheviks begin to consolidate power after the October Revolution and Lenin discards his previous truths, then adopts new ones that center on oppression, repression, and centralism. It's a good read, even though it's a serious downer to think about what came next.


Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Kissinger on Chile

I happened to be in the car and hear a bit of an NPR interview with Henry Kissinger (not sure about the link, though here is a link to what I think is another part of the interview). My ears perked up at one exchange, and then I was disappointed in interviewer and interviewee.

The topic was realism vs. idealism. Point blank, Kissinger was asked about "engineering the coup in Chile." What had been a pretty smooth interview suddenly became confrontational. Kissinger's main response was that a) this happened a long time ago; b) in a short interview there was no way to get at the details, which are being manipulated for political reasons; and c) we needed to always remember that policy makers are serious people doing their best for the country.

Unfortunately, it was a missed opportunity. No one in the United States created the coup. The coup was domestic. To say otherwise is to pretend that Chilean politics had almost nothing to do with it. The most important thing the Nixon administration did was to send clear signals that if a coup succeeded, it would receive immediate support (I write about this in more detail earlier this year). That was an important part of the puzzle but it is not synonymous with "engineering." I would've preferred a question that asked why the U.S. supported the destruction of democracy when we claimed to revere it.

But Kissinger's answer was mostly non-sequiturs. Who cares how long ago it was? You don't get a pass just because you supported destroying democracy a long time ago. And who cares what kind of interview it is? If you alternate views of the facts, then give them. Finally, the third part--which he repeated--is scary. So if a policy maker is serious, then outcome doesn't matter?

I have to figure this last point has become his primary justification for the most controversial policy decisions. If he meant well (which of course can be defined in any way) and was serious about it then if things went wrong, people died, etc. then he has no real responsibility.


SECOLAS 2015 in Charleston

If you study Latin America, you should come to Charleston March 12-14, 2015 for the Southeastern Council of Latin American Studies. Always a great conference--I've been going for years. Click here for the Facebook page, which has the Call for Papers and other info. If you have questions, feel free to contact me as well.


Venezuela Default Headline

Bloomberg's headline "Venezuelan Default Suggested by Harvard Economist" is extraordinarily misleading. A much more accurate version would be "Maduro Foe Makes Fun of the Government." It's Ricardo Hausmann, who was Minister of Planning when Hugo Chávez tried to overthrow his government, and he ends the interview by saying that he would resign if he were Maduro. The headline suggests some objective professor with Harvard gravitas.

At least the article itself lays out a bit more than that--Hausmann's argument is that the government should default and use the funds to alleviate shortages, saying that to do otherwise is "moral bankruptcy." Another economist, Francisco Rodríguez argues that default doesn't get at the real problem:

“Venezuela has more than enough foreign currency earnings to both ensure an adequate supply of imports and meet its foreign obligations,” Rodriguez said in a Sept. 5 note to clients. “Current scarcity levels are caused not by the need to service on the country’s external debt but by the massive distortions to relative prices that have resulted from the country’s tight price and exchange controls. Resolving these relative price distortions, rather than defaulting, is the key to restoring Venezuela’s macroeconomic health.”

Debt might be a problem, then, but paying it off is not the source of consumer good scarcity. What you need is to tackle the economic incentives that encourage smuggling, hoarding, and producing (or, as the case might be, not producing).


Monday, September 08, 2014

Renewing the Cuba Embargo

President Obama has renewed the embargo against Cuba for another year:

Under section 101(b) of Public Law 95-223 (91 Stat. 1625; 50 U.S.C. App. 5(b) note), and a previous determination on September 12, 2013 (78 FR 57225, September 17, 2013), the exercise of certain authorities under the Trading With the Enemy Act is scheduled to terminate on September 14, 2014.  
I hereby determine that the continuation for 1 year of the exercise of those authorities with respect to Cuba is in the national interest of the United States.

The "previous determination" simply refers to making the exact same decision last year with the exact same wording. And next month, as always, the United Nations will vote to condemn it, and the only countries who will not do so are the United States, Israel, and one or two very small Pacific states.

There is not much new to say about all this. There is really no reasonable logic behind the "national interest" thesis. If anything, the opposite is true. Our treatment of Cuba strengthens the Castro regime and isolates us in the region. How can that be construed as "in the national interest"?


Friday, September 05, 2014

Argentina: We're Not Venezuela!

So the Argentine legislature is debating a price fixing law, but the Fernández administration is trying to reassure everyone it won't be like Venezuela:

“The fact that there’s a law doesn’t mean it will be applied like it is in Venezuela or that the consequences will be like those of Venezuela,” Commerce Secretary Augusto Costa said in a telephone interview from Buenos Aires yesterday.

The Argentine government clearly does not want to be seen as copying Venezuela (despite the fact that Nicolás Maduro's son visited Argentina to talk all about it) which has harebrained schemes of fingerprinting and claims of conspiracies. Still, inflation is 38% (at least by one measure--this is a constant matter of debate) and the government figures they can attack prices. Good luck with that!

In my Latin American politics class, I bring up the idea of incentives very early on. Prices are obviously a problem, but the core issue revolves around the incentives that government policies generate which drive prices up in the first place. Fighting prices per se is mostly attacking symptoms rather than disease. For example, currently farmers have an incentive to hoard soybeans priced in dollars because selling them and getting pesos is too risky.


Thursday, September 04, 2014

My Losing Latin America Op-Ed

There are so many articles about how the United States is "losing" Latin America, and I've been disagreeing with them for so long that I finally got around to writing an op-ed on it. So click over to Al Jazeera and check it out.


How to Spice Up an Iran Conspiracy Article

Here's a lengthy Iran-Latin America conspiracy article, which is more or less identical to many others over the years.* The basic recipe, which you can spice up in various ways, is as follows:

1. Discuss how Iranian leaders have spoken to leftist leaders in Latin America
2. Refer to 1992 bombing in Argentina
3. Paste together circumstantial and unconnected evidence
4. Criticize those who do not believe Iran is a threat in Latin America, including the State Department
5. Suggest taking "action," preferably "before it's too late."

The current article used the following extra spice:

1. Bring in Machiavelli
2. Talk a lot about 9/11
3. Discuss 1979 hostages in Iran

* One of my favorites is the one asserting "the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence."


Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Dissatisfied Mexico

The Pew Research Global Attitudes Project has some data on Mexico that caught my eye for a few reasons. The headline is that Enrique Peña Nieto has slipping approval ratings, but there are other, more interesting, bits.

For example, Mexicans aren't happy, and haven't been happy for quite some time.

You can't even blame the drug war because in 2002 (four years before Felipe Calderón declared it) Mexicans were more dissatisfied. This period also encompasses much of the democratic period (e.g. post 2000) but that didn't help either (or we might hypothesize that it made things worse!). And this is also a period of much exaltation of the growing Mexican middle class. In short, there's a lot of food for thought here.

Next, there is a sharp uptick in the number of Mexicans without strong connections to the United States.

This surprises me. Migration has slowed down but was strong for years so we should expect plenty of people to stay connected. I might be tempted to dismiss it as a blip but Pew got those results both in 2013 and in 2014. Remittances have slipped a bit, though this is also strongly tied to the U.S. economy. Yet they're still over $20 billion, so now we have more money going to an even smaller number of people in Mexico?

There's other stuff too--it's worth checking out.


Addressing Grade Inflation

UNC Chapel Hill has come up with a new way to address grade inflation. From now on, transcripts will provide additional context:

Next to a student’s grade, the record will include the median grade of classmates, the percentile range and the number of students in the class section. Another new measure, alongside the grade point average, is the schedule point average. A snapshot average grade for a student’s mix of courses, the SPA is akin to a sports team’s strength of schedule. 
The nuanced transcripts will provide more information for graduate schools and employers, who should be better able to judge the difference between good and excellent performance. An A- in psychology might not look so swell when the average grade in the class is an A. On the other hand, an A- in physics looks downright impressive if the class average is a C+.

Read more here:

My first reaction is that this will look so complicated that employers will continue to look directly at the bottom line, namely overall GPA, to the extent that they scrutinize the transcript at all. It may well be valuable to Ph.D. programs trying to decide who they will admit. Those are, however, a very small minority of all undergraduates.

Plus, it may well have a negative impact, as students will swap stories about what classes have the highest average grades, which of course immediately are more desirable if you want to pad your GPA.

Indiana University used to do it, but stopped because of a software change. Dartmouth College and Cornell University include median grades on transcripts. Cornell used to publish the information online, but quit in 2011 after a study revealed that enrollment spiked in classes with a median grade of A.

Read more here:

What's striking here is that the universities mentioned in the article seem to have abandoned the idea of asking professors why they are grading so high in the first place. There are vague references to students demanding more, but why not say no? I might be missing something because I rarely have the experience of students believing they deserve a good grade on everything. Yes, I get plenty of "well, I NEED a B in this class," though this is usually born of desperation rather than narcissism.  But this story is aimed at elite universities which seem to have a student body that feels more entitled.


Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Why to Support Evo Morales

Tyler Cowen explains why he supports the government of Evo Morales, with nine separate points. Since he is an unabashed free market advocate, it says something that he pokes through the ideology and sees a pragmatic government with broad support that has brought stability to a country that has been lacking it. This in particular should be heeded by those who label Morales as a leftist puppet and yearn for Goni or whomever.

If a Bolivian government is not strongly connected to the country’s indigenous population, that government cannot have a strong base.  Yet it will still work hard to stay in power (#2), which will mean it will resort to oppressions and distortions, with high long-run costs.  Bolivian history has seen an especially large number of coups and attempted coups, illustrating this weakness of the power base, which you can think of as the major problem in historical Bolivian public choice. 

Bolivian elites and the U.S. government alike have pretty well ignored that common sense.


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