Thursday, July 02, 2015

Bob Corker and Venezuela

Republican Senator Bob Corker, who is chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is in Venezuela. It's unusual for such a visit to please everyone, yet at least for now it is. It is being labeled by the U.S. media as an effort to smooth relations while the far right labels it an effort to pressure the Venezuelan government. María Corina Machado had the same impression. Meanwhile, the Venezuelan government itself says that in a meeting Corker recognized the advances the Maduro government is making.

Corker himself has made no statement, which is not surprising. Why say anything when every player thinks you're on their side?

The balancing act with regard to Venezuela isn't new. Last year Corker blocked the Venezuela sanctions for months, which made people like Ileana Ros-Lehtinen angry. He eventually released it, citing Venezuela's refusal to extradite Hugo Carvajal, who is wanted on drug charges in the U.S. Even while doing that, though, he emphasized the need for regional dialogue.

I'm not really sure why Corker is interested in Venezuela, though it may simply have to do with concern over oil access. Yet while he's a hawk on Iraq, for example, he is much more restrained than other Republicans on Venezuela.


Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Criticism of Restoring Ties With Cuba

Today President Obama announced that Cuba and the United States would open embassies and restore normal diplomatic relations. As usual, I immediately went to see not only what critics said, but how they framed their criticism.

Some of these are well-worn and ignorant of the fact that our past polices are precisely what helped legitimize the Castro government. Ending isolation is very risky for the Cuban government, but it is facing a major demographic challenge in addition to the risk of relying on the teetering Venezuelan government.

There is a new one criticism, namely legacy, and it's curious. The argument is that Obama is pursuing this policy to burnish his legacy, or to "go legacy shopping," as Ileana Ros-Lehtinen put it. Another Florida representative phrased it as a"legacy building bucket list." So many people are using this that I have to figure it's been planned.

What I find odd is that none of them dispute the fact that this will help Obama's legacy. In other words, it is widely viewed as popular in the short-term and as something that will make him look good in the longer term. If both of those are true, then we need to face the strong possibility that the policy is in fact a good one.

Here are some other excerpts:

Marco Rubio:

“Throughout this entire negotiation, as the Castro regime has stepped up its repression of the Cuban people, the Obama Administration has continued to look the other way and offer concession after concession. The administration's reported plan to restore diplomatic relations is one such prized concession to the Castro regime. It remains unclear what, if anything, has been achieved since the President's December 17th announcement in terms of securing the return of U.S. fugitives being harbored in Cuba, settling outstanding legal claims to U.S. citizens for properties confiscated by the regime, and in obtaining the unequivocal right of our diplomats to travel freely throughout Cuba and meet with any dissidents, and most importantly, securing greater political freedoms for the Cuban people. I intend to oppose the confirmation of an Ambassador to Cuba until these issues are addressed. It is time for our unilateral concessions to this odious regime to end.”

John Boehner:

"The Obama administration is handing the Castros a lifetime dream of legitimacy without getting a thing for the Cuban people being oppressed by this brutal communist dictatorship,"

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen:

As the Ladies in White, Jorge Luis Garcia Perez Antunez, Yris Perez Aguilera, and other pro-democracy leaders are routinely harassed, beaten, and imprisoned, the Obama administration has continued to turn its back on the Cuban people in order to pursue its goal of providing as many concessions as possible to the Castro regime. Not surprisingly, this administration has shown that politics trump policy in its decision-making process. Opening the American Embassy in Cuba will do nothing to help the Cuban people and is just another trivial attempt for President Obama to go legacy shopping.

Jeb Bush:

“The real test of the Obama administration’s rapprochement with the Castro regime in Cuba is not whether President Obama’s legacy is burnished with dubious diplomatic achievements and photo-ops, but whether improved relations between Havana and Washington advance the cause of human rights and freedom for the Cuban people,” the 2016 GOP presidential candidate said. “The ongoing detention of dissidents and continued human rights abuses suggest the administration’s policy is failing this test.”

Rick Perry:

Mr. Perry, a 2016 GOP presidential candidate, said the decision is the “most recent example of this president’s foreign policy that ignores reality in exchange for surface level political ‘wins.’”
“The truth is that since the Castro brothers assumed power in 1959, their policies have changed very little,” Mr. Perry said. “The Cuban people today are not any freer politically or economically, and President Obama has failed to account for what the Castro regime has done in the last several years that warrants such an enormous shift in a longstanding U.S. policy of economic embargo and diplomatic isolation.
“There is no indication that further normalization will do anything to actually liberate the Cuban people or advance American interests,” Perry said.

Bob Menendez:

Our demands for freedoms and liberty on the island will continue to be ignored and we are incentivizing a police state to uphold a policy of brutality. It is long past due for the United States to require concessions and changes from Cuba and thus far, we have seen neither. A policy of the United States giving and the Castro brothers freely taking is not in our national interest and not a responsible approach when dealing with repressive rulers that deny freedoms to its people. An already one-sided deal that benefits the Cuban regime is becoming all the more lopsided.”
"This is the only government in the Western Hemisphere, which the Obama administration has chosen to establish relations with, that is not elected by its citizens. The message is democracy and human rights take a back seat to a legacy initiative.”

Ted Cruz:

"President Obama announced today he is continuing his policy of unconditional surrender to Fidel and Raul Castro by rewarding one of the most violently anti-American regimes on the planet with an embassy and an official representative of our government. I, for one, want the Cuban people to know that there are still those who stand with them, and who know the Castros for what they are. I will hold any nominee President Obama sends to the Senate to be ambassador to Cuba, and I will work to disapprove any new funds for embassy construction in Havana, unless and until the President can demonstrate that he has made some progress in alleviating the misery of our friends, the people of Cuba."


Attitudes Toward the Environment in Latin America

There's a new AmericasBarometer article from the Latin American Public Opinion Project on Latin American attitudes toward the environment (by Claire Evans, a doctoral student at Vanderbilt).

The report puts the post‐materialism school of thought to the test and finds it does a poor job of explaining why so many individuals in the Latin America and Caribbean region express environmentally friendly attitudes. Socioeconomic status, measured by the wealth and education variables, has no effect on such attitudes in the pooled analysis for the LAC region. Age is also not a significant predictor of environmental attitudes. An individual’s urban (versus rural) place of residence and gender do predict individuals’ environmental attitudes, albeit by relatively small amounts.   These results reveal a hole in our understanding of public opinion and the environment. In a region that is facing other difficulties, why is it that such a large portion of the population is willing to sacrifice much needed economic growth in order to ensure sustainability?  

People of limited means are interested in the environment even though protecting it may not be beneficial to them personally in the short term. People in rural areas in particular see firsthand what the problems are.

This also means there is a reservoir of support for protecting the environment, which is something individual leaders have talked about, but also is an element in U.S.-Latin American relations. Just yesterday Brazil and the U.S. pledged to get to 20% renewable energy by 2030. There is room to broaden the discussion in campaigns, especially presidential ones, and gain political support by doing so.


Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Venezuelan Opposition in Comparative Perspective.

I have an article up at Latin America Goes Global on the Venezuelan opposition, taking lessons from two Chilean experiences with an opposition needing to unite in order to win elections. If you're interested, please just click.


Libertarians in Latin America

Humberto Rotondo, a law student in Lima, wrote an op-ed for PanAm Post on libertarianism in Latin America, specifically arguing that libertarians in Latin America have screwed up by siding with conservatism.

In general, I don't think about Latin American libertarians at all precisely for that reason. It's like they barely exist because classical liberalism has been tied so closely to large, oppressive governments.

Instead of fighting one and siding with another, we must break these ideological ties and stop labeling ourselves as either “right” or “left.” It’s time we begin developing our own institutions and reclaim our political identity as liberals.

The question he does not ask is whether libertarianism can survive in Latin America without that large oppressive government. Every experiment in drastically reducing the size of government has led to massive discontent, in large part because doing so has benefited the elite so disproportionately, while hurting the poor. Latin America is the most unequal continent in the world, and classical liberalism exacerbates it. Experiments (like structural adjustment) that we could reasonably call libertarian have required sending police and/or the military into the streets.

Therefore what Latin American libertarians need to do is actually explain how they would be different from failed past economic models.


Monday, June 29, 2015

A Central American Spring?

Louisa Reynolds asks at Foreign Policy if we're seeing a Central American Spring. I feel like this might be the wrong question. From its usage in the Middle East, the use of the term "spring" has come to mean rapid, transformative political change sparked by widespread protests (and sometimes armed rebellion). What I see in Central America is the slow, painstaking process of gradually strengthening domestic political institutions to increase horizontal accountability.

It's also not really accurate to say:

For nine weeks now, Guatemalans have been taking to the streets to demand dramatic change — an unusual sight in Central America, where corruption is the norm. 

Corruption may be the norm, but Honduras has seen protests since the 2009 coup so they're not unusual everywhere. Those protests demanded dramatic change but did not achieve it. Even Costa Ricans protest corruption. They are, though, quite a sight in Guatemala, and happening largely for external reasons (i.e. CICIG).

It's hard to see rapid transformation in any Central American country. I'd say the best case scenario is that presidents gradually come to understand that corruption will be prosecuted, that the international community continue to play a constructive role, and that Central American elected officials slowly demonstrate why citizens should trust them.

If Otto Pérez Molina actually resigns or is otherwise democratically removed before his term is over, it'll be historic. But I am not sure it'll mean long-term change, which is a lot harder and requires chipping away at an oligarchy that will not give up easily.


Biden and Rousseff

Brian Winter has a fascinating story in Americas Quarterly about the link (which I did not know about) between Joe Biden and Dilma Rousseff. It's a very personal story, the conclusion of which is that Dilma loves him.

Rousseff marveled to her aides: “That man could sell an icebox in Canada.”

Check it out. It serves as yet another layer of complexity that cuts through the typical and simplistic "The U.S. is ignoring Brazil" or "Brazil is pushing back against the United States" stories we tend to get. There's a lot more to it.


Latin America and Honduras Six Years Later

Yesterday marked six years since the illegal overthrow of President Zelaya in Honduras. Here are some examples of outrage at the U.S. role. There is plenty to be said in that regard, and clearly Honduras is far worse off as a result of the coup. But I find the Latin America angle to be missing.

I wrote almost daily about the coup, and what I feel gets ignored is how little Latin American leaders did beyond talk. Brazil (with El Salvador's help) did the most by orchestrating Zelaya's return to Honduras but that actually didn't lead to a solution--it just changed where Zelaya sat as the rest of Latin America waited for the United States to resolve the problem. Lula even called Zelaya to tell him to tone things down.

Hugo Chávez said the November 2009 presidential election was a sham so Venezuela would not recognize the winner, but then he did and they became BFF. Lula talked tough and back down. The OAS talked tough and backed down. Everyone talked tough and backed down.

I made a similar point in 2012 after the Paraguayan crisis. There is a lot of talk from Latin America, but seemingly very little interest in backing it up. Instead, all those governments made lots of statements, then quickly and quietly settled down and accepted the new status quo. I have no problem with criticizing the U.S. role, but I wish Latin American leaders had come together and gone beyond mere denunciation.


Friday, June 26, 2015

U.S. and Latin American Relations 2nd Edition is Out!

I was very pleased to receive my new book in the mail:

This is ready for Fall 2015 classes. It's been seven and a half years since the first edition was published, and so has had a lot of revision (including a new brand new chapter).


Thursday, June 25, 2015

Bad Economic News for Dilma

All kinds of bad news for Dilma Rousseff these days. The Brazilian Central Bank increased its inflation forecast to 9% and increased its forecast for economic contraction to 1.1%. Meanwhile, unemployment crept up to its highest level in four years.

After two years of hearing how she was sticking it to the U.S. by not visiting, now her trip to see President Obama at the end of this month seems much more like something she needs to shore up her image at home. With economic problems and major corruption scandals, her approval rating is now at 10% and 65% of Brazilians think her government is a "failure."

Having just been re-elected, there is hope for recovery. Or this could be a long, miserable road.


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Cuba and Republicans

Cuba makes such strange politics. A group of congressional Republicans is trying very hard to put more restrictions on Americans' liberty and trade. According to the GOP platform:

In a free society, the primary role of government is to protect the God-given, inalienable, inherent rights of its citizens, including the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

But if you want to engage with Cuba, forget all that liberty and pursuit stuff.

Next, we have Kansas, where the Republican governor is facing criticism from everyone because of his incompetent budgeting. Both Republican senators from Kansas favor ending the embargo, and the budget crisis is making them even more vocal. One even already introduced a bill to end the embargo! That puts them squarely with President Obama and squarely against Republican presidential candidates (according to the Heritage Foundation, Senators Roberts and Moran are just above average in terms of how conservative they are).

I'll be curious to see how this plays out in the Republican primaries. Marco Rubio in particular will want to frame Cuba policy as a sign of Obama's weakness, yet this will be undercut by plenty of fellow Republicans.


Monday, June 22, 2015

Distracting With Invasion

As I've told students many times, if a president is in trouble at home, then there's nothing like a good invasion to distract everyone's attention. The Venezuelan government created new military zones that actually include Colombian territorial waters. As you might guess, the Colombian government has sent a note of protest. This is especially prickly for Colombia, which already was supposed to cede territory to Nicaragua but refused and pulled out of the International Court of Justice.

For Venezuela, this builds on the simultaneous push toward Guyana's maritime borders (though as Boz points out, this could well be the exact same for Guyana's president).

I have never seen a theory of distraction, but it would be interesting to contemplate. Under what circumstances does distraction "work" (which itself would have to be clearly defined). Probably the most famous case where it didn't work was the Argentine junta's invasion of the Falklands/Malvinas. That, of course, was a real military exercise whereas Venezuela's claims are not. It's very hard to pinpoint where it works because so many other factors are at play. At the very least, though, we could look at approval ratings before and after some claim on another country's territory. Other variables would have to include economic indicators, how democratic the government is, etc.

As for Nicolás Maduro, it's hard to see how this will prompt Venezuelans to look beyond crime, inflation, scarcity, and the like.


Saturday, June 20, 2015


I've been gone all week serving on a jury in a shooting case--here's the original news story from last July. It took five days, which was draining. It's weird to be immersed in one tragic day of other people's lives. We found Sam Babb Clonts guilty of Assault with a Deadly Weapon with Intent to Kill Inflict Serious Injury (we learned this is referred to as ADWIKISI). He'll now serve 69-90 months with court-ordered mental support.

I won't bother to detail everything, though I've heard this so many times I will probably never forget the narrative. Basically, three gun-obsessed people (two are roommates and close as brothers) get together to hang out and drink beer on the deck of a house. All three feel the need to keep their guns loaded and close to them. In fact, the two roommates both work either making or selling guns. At one point the victim changes into pajama pants, and even switches to a lighter gun as a result. That gun culture is just so alien to me. Why can't you keep your gun locked up, or at least leave it in the house, while you're drinking? Why in the world do you need your gun with your pajamas? What are you so afraid of?

An argument breaks out, some shoving and then hitting, and you end up with one guy shooting his best friend in the back three times with a Glock shooting hollow-point bullets. He would've shot at least one more time but his gun jammed (I now know what a "double feed" is. This was very close to a homicide, but the victim lived and is now paralyzed for life.

As it turned out, the victim was an entirely unlikable person, in my mind a bully and misogynist (as he explained in testimony, at one point he told his friend, "Tell your bitch to shut up"). But we do not have license to shoot unlikable jerks in the back.

One thing that struck me but which was never introduced was the fact that the two roommates were combat veterans (they served in Afghanistan) and the experience could've had an impact. We know how often there are wounds that we cannot see. Both men snapped, and one used his gun (to his credit, when the victim got mad he consciously took out his gun, removed the magazine, and set it aside). I hope Clonts gets the help he needs.

The defense didn't have much of a case, but needed only one juror (given the requirement of unanimity) so the attorney took us down a variety of useless paths, primarily aimed at showing how the police might've made errors in their investigation. Our deliberation never even touched on that. So we spent hour after hour listening to what ultimately was unimportant testimony (as in, why do we need details on who exactly put up the crime tape? Why spend 20 minutes asking about the mechanics of a gun firing? Did you really need to force us to listen twice to a 45ish minute audio interview with the victim?). We focused only on what the shooter did.

It was an unusual experience to hang out with strangers for so long hearing the exact same story again and again, and it became frustrating that we couldn't talk. By day 3 I wanted at least to chat, but you can't. In large part because we always had in stay in order, we referred to each other by our numbers (#8 was a really nice guy but famously often late so would get ragged for it). I was #5. It was a very diverse group of people, and we got along quite well--I don't even really know their names, but will not forget their faces. For five days of my life, I will receive a check for $92.

So now two men's lives are screwed up forever--one is free but will never walk, while the other will spend years of his life in prison. And there is no doubt in my mind that their need to have loaded guns close to them at all times is the primary reason they find themselves in this sad situation.


Friday, June 19, 2015

Paul Barrett's Law of the Jungle

Paul M. Barrett's Law of the Jungle is an unsatisfying book. Barrett is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek, and wrote about the Chevron case in Ecuador. Given the tone of the book, he also took what seems to be an intense dislike to Steven Donziger, the lawyer who was leading the anti-Chevron side. I lost count of the snide remarks. That colors the entire book.

The case itself is treated superficially since the focus is generally on Donziger. The basic thrust is that what Donziger says/does is suspect, and that Chevron's actions often (though to be fair, not always) can be taken at face value or considered to be logical. Barrett clearly views Chevron with sympathy, believing that at a minimum they are not responsible for cleanup since Petroecuador also spilled oil. The story is framed as a corrupt shakedown orchestrated by an unlikable ego-maniac. Yes, people may be suffering, but that's not Chevron (or Texaco's before it was bought) problem.

It's instructive, though, to see this fairly cold, pro-Chevron side of things. From Barrett's perspective, this is really a problem for Ecuador. After all, past governments made money from the oil and could've spent some it on cleanup. But they're too corrupt. Chevron can blithely walk away without a care, and without a shred of guilt. With all its investments, it actually was a positive force.


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Jury break

I was called for jury duty yesterday and this will likely take several more days. So I have to take an unexpected (and unwanted) break.


Friday, June 12, 2015

U.S. Policy Toward Chile in the 1980s

Victor Figueroa Clark, "The Forgotten History of the Chilean Transition: Armed Resistance Against Pinochet and US Policy toward Chile in the 1980s." Journal of Latin American Studies (June 2015): 1-30.

Abstract: The history of the transition to civilian rule in Chile largely overlooks or marginalizes the role of the armed and confrontational forms of resistance to the dictatorship. This article traces the pre and post-coup history of the Left’s engagement with armed forms of struggle and evaluates the effects their incorporation into the struggle against the dictatorship had upon the regime and the Reagan administration. It concludes that armed resistance was a major factor in determining US policy to Chile during the 1980s, and therefore played an important role in the transition as a whole.

Really interesting and provocative article, using a host of primary sources, both from Chile and the U.S. Clark makes the case that the militant left is mostly excluded from analyses of the transition. What he argues is that its activities actually made the Reagan administration more likely to favor a transition, fearing an unpredictable result.

One question is how much the militant left was the decisive factor versus others. It's not always ignored. Peter Kornbluh discusses it in The Pinochet File, and while acknowledging fear of instability makes the case for Pinochet's violence per se as causing a shift in the Reagan administration. The military government was becoming an embarrassment with its overreaction (though, to be fair, one could argue that overreaction isn't possible without something causing it). In The Pinochet Regime, Carlos Huneeus also notes the role of the militant left, but makes a more institutional argument about the internal divisions in the armed forces and the timing of the plebiscite itself.

These are, literally, academic debates. Clark's is provocative because it provides far more legitimacy to what were (and often still are) labeled as "terrorist" attacks. If we accept that they helped prompt a peaceful transition, then we must also accept that they are sometimes beneficial. That opens up an entirely new debate.


Thursday, June 11, 2015

Rousseff Criticizes U.S. Sanctions

In a speech to EU leaders, Dilma Rousseff spoke specifically about U.S. sanctions against Venezuela.

"We Latin American and Caribbean nations will not permit unilateral measures aimed at promoting a coup, nor policies aimed at isolation. We know that such measures are counterproductive, ineffective and unjust. As such, we reject the adoption of any kind of sanction against Venezuela," Rousseff said.

Three points:

First, as I've said before, these sanctions are counterproductive, primarily because they make it more difficult for Latin American presidents to criticize Nicolás Maduro.

Second, even while saying that, Rousseff is pursuing improved relations with the United States, so we should not overstate the effects.

Third, Maduro did not attend the meeting, which I would've thought was right up his alley. He tweeted instead. He also cancelled a scheduled meeting with the Pope. So what gives?


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Understanding Protests in Latin America

A Bloomberg story notes how protests are everywhere in Latin America, attributing it to the end of the commodity boom. However, I am left unconvinced about the causal link between economies and protests.

For example:

--Chile's student protests started in 2011 while copper was still high
--When Venezuelan protests broke out in March 2014, oil was still over $100 a barrel
--there are protests in Guatemala, yet the IMF predicts pretty strong economic growth there
--the article cites corruption in Panama, yet there is even stronger growth there

The problem lies in lumping all these things together:

From Mexico to Chile, Latin Americans frustrated with scandals, stagnant economies and government incompetence are taking to the streets. Often they are protesting the very populist leaders they rallied around over the past decade, when rising wealth from a commodities boom fueled a surge in government spending and helped mask corruption.
In some cases economies are not stagnant; in other cases governments are not incompetent. There are scandals all over, but they are also not all new--if anything scandals and corruption are a constant. So the causation is not so clear.

Take the case of Guatemala. The economy is not stagnant and corruption has been a long-standing problem, yet now is making huge waves. As Mike Allison has blogged about, the protests seem to stem from the creation of CICIG and the timing of elections. In other words, there are protests and they're a new thing, but they're not caused by economic factors.


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