Thursday, December 01, 2016

Cuba's Post-Fidel Transition

I attended an interesting talk by Carlos Alzuguray, a prominent Cuban scholar and diplomat. He argued that Fidel Castro's death will be a turning point for change in Cuba, since his presence greatly slowed changes even though he was no longer in government.

It was a frank talk. He said the economy clearly was not working and that once Raul was gone, the new leaders would inherit a "papa caliente." Not only are there severe economic problems, but the new leadership will not share the same mantle of legitimacy that the founders of the revolution enjoyed.

He also said that it had been a mistake not to work harder to expand internet access, noting that this is where Cuban entrepreneurs had a lot of untapped potential.

It struck me that an unknown question is that once Raul is gone, how well will the new leaders cooperate? We see how Hugo Chavez held together disparate factions, which fought harder against each other once he was gone. Cuba will have its own internal schisms about how to move forward, and we don't know how those conflicts will play themselves out.


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Podcast Episode 14: Political Demography and Latin America

In Episode 14 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast I talk with my esteemed colleague and co-author John Weeks, who is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Geography at San Diego State University, about the political effects of demographic change in Latin America, including Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, and Venezuela. He's really been like a father to me.


Monday, November 28, 2016

Fidel, Trump, and Cuba

I'm quoted in this article in The Guardian about Fidel Castro's death and the possible policy orientation of the Trump administration. The transition team is sending mixed signals, from rolling back the Obama administration's executive orders to vaguely needing "more" from Cuba in return. Doubtless, the mixed signals come from a president-elect who doesn't know what he wants to do.

The point I was trying to make to the reporter is that Trump faces contradictory impulses. Rolling back would mean appealing to his small but vocal pro-embargo constituency. Indeed, he still mentions the Bay of Pigs veterans, as in his statement about Fidel's death. But it also means going against his instincts for business. He is, after all, a builder of resorts, hotels, golf courses, etc. and he's been interested in Cuba before. He's all about U.S. investment in other countries, and probably dreams of a Torre Trump in Havana.

As I've said several times before, we just won't know much until we know the appointees. Trump gives the broad outlines and they fill those in with the details. Who "they" are is still unknown. The Wall Street Journal suggests Fidel's death will put extra pressure on Trump to keep a hard line, but he's already there. Most likely he'll roll some things back and keep others, while announcing victory for his "deal."


Sunday, November 27, 2016

China's New Era of Latin American Relations

I expect that for the next several months we're going to be hearing a lot about how China is moving quickly after Donald Trump's victory to expand ties in Latin America. The Chinese just released a policy paper about the "new era" of Chinese-Latin American relations.

It actually is not much different from the first such policy paper, which was released in 2008. They're comprehensive, from local exchanges to military cooperation. But the second version is just a public reminder to Latin America that the United States is pulling back on trade, on the environment, and other issues important to regional leaders. And as I've written before, as China talks Latin America is listening. Reassuring Latin America should be a priority for the president-elect.


Saturday, November 26, 2016

Fidel Castro is Dead (Really!)

It's not propaganda, fake news, or anything else. Fidel Castro has died. I don't recall anyone else having so many rumors of demise swirl around them so much. I've made more jokes and Weekend at Bernie's references than I can remember.

At this point it's not terribly interesting to debate whether he's "good" or "bad." There will be plenty of that elsewhere. Suffice it to say that he's the most important and consequential Latin American political figure ever. The Cuban revolution changed Latin America and had a massive impact on the United States. Fear of Fidel Castro is the key reason military dictatorships justified their existence and were so repressive, while love of Fidel Castro and his example sparked revolutions across the region, including successfully in Nicaragua (and so he's also the reason Daniel Ortega is president now).

People in the United States can't tell you the name of a single Latin American president, but they know who Fidel is. He brought the US and the Soviets as close as we ever came to nuclear war. He changed the outcome of U.S. presidential elections by the influx of Cubans into Florida, and it's not a stretch to say that as a result he helped George W. Bush beat Al Gore in 2000. He's deeply embedded in U.S. popular culture, including The Godfather II.

It's also about me and my career. The revolution is what sparked U.S. government funding of Latin American Studies in the 1960s, though the vast majority of scholars quickly used that funding to launch criticism. UNC Chapel Hill received such funding, which brought Lars Schoultz to work under the direction of Federico Gil, and then 20 years or so later I worked under Lars.

So really, Fidel Castro is partially responsible for this blog post.

Editor's note: the original version of this post had The Godfather, when the correct movie is The Godfather II. Apologies for any confusion.


Friday, November 25, 2016

Venezuelans Migrants Are Like Cubans

Nick Casey has a remarkable article in The New York Times (accompanied by some excellent photos) about Venezuelans emigrating to Brazil and to Caribbean countries. Venezuelans have become Cubans, but with no asylum options. They want to stay and want to work, but there is too little work and food scarcity. So they pay smugglers on get on boats, sometimes never to be hard from again. Possibly 200,000 Venezuelans have emigrated in the past year.

This made me think of the conversation I had with Quico Toro a few days ago on my podcast. I wanted to get his view on when the Venezuelan people would finally say they'd have enough. He said it was just impossible to determine when the tipping point would be. But what this story also reminds us is that desperate people don't necessarily look to politics. Albert Hirschman famously wrote about the choices of exit, voice, or loyalty. We can make the mistake of thinking people will choose voice when exit is also an option.


Thursday, November 24, 2016

Obama's Problematic Immigration Record

This post seems appropriate for Thanksgiving, a day characterized by an idealized view of immigration.

Franco Ordoñez has a good story about how President Obama failed a lot on immigration, to the point that Donald Trump inherits a deportation machine. Obama is the "deporter-in-chief," to a degree never seen in U.S. history (Snopes even felt obligated to confirm this!). Earlier this year I wrote about this in frustration and have blogged about it quite a bit. Over 400,000 people a year, including targeting kids (including here in Charlotte).

What makes me even more frustrated is Obama's failure to admit it. Trump hammered on him for months and months, and at any time Obama could've fessed up. "We're deporting record numbers of people" or "We've already put it 700 miles of fence."* But he didn't want to admit to it, and never has.

This makes no sense to me. He has three options:

1. Admit that he is aggressively pursuing undocumented immigrants and saying this is just following the law. This appeals to conservatives (or at least takes the wind out of the sails of criticism).
2. Reduce the number of deportations and say so, thus appealing to progressives and potentially energizing at least part of the Latino/a population.
3. Deport aggressively while pretending he's not, which makes everyone mad.

Obama chose #3. This means he contributed to Latino/a cynicism about the Democratic Party, doing terrible damage to many people's lives and hurting Hillary Clinton's campaign, while conservatives remained convinced he was soft and so felt more attracted to Trump.

DACA is an excellent policy based on common sense, and I give Obama credit for it. But we should not praise him for things he does not deserve.

*Though I am also aware that Trump said fences were useless during the campaign and now says they're part of his plan.


Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Podcast Episode 13: Understanding Dialogue in Venezuela

In the latest episode of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with Francisco "Quico" Toro, Executive Editor of Caracas Chronicles, about Venezuela, especially the state of the dialogue between the opposition and the government. What can it accomplish? What is the opposition doing? What are the alternatives? The only question we can’t answer is why Nicolás Maduro is dancing salsa while the country falls apart. That one seems to be impossible to figure out.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Rolling Back Cuba Policy

Mauricio Claver-Carone, an outspoken critic of President Obama's Cuba policy, has been named to Donald Trump's transition team. If Otto Reich likes it, then you know it's a hardcore choice.

Claver-Carone's appointment to the transition team “is a clear signal … that the president-elect will carry out the promise he made to the Cuban American community,” former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela Otto Reich told the Nuevo Herald. 
Reich added that the appointment does not automatically mean Claver-Carone will get a top job in the new administration, although Reich predicted that he would accept it if offered. “In my opinion, not many other people know as much about Obama's mistakes on Cuba policy, and how to change them, as Mauricio,” he said.

Read more here:

Claver-Carone just published an op-ed attacking Obama's policy, rather bizarrely comparing it to supporting United Fruit.

The president has repeatedly described U.S. policy toward Cuba as a “relic of the Cold War.” He had to dig deeper into the archives to derive this provision, so reminiscent of an era when U.S. foreign policy famously teamed with Latin American dictators and American corporations, like the United Fruit Company, to negotiate away the economic future of those nations. 
There’s no longer any rational strategy behind President Obama’s “Cuba policy.” It has gone from what it initially portrayed as a noble purpose to pure sycophancy in pursuit of “historic firsts.” Unfortunately, those Cuban dissidents who recognized Obama’s intent from the beginning and labeled it “a betrayal” of their fight for freedom have now been proven correct. Their foresight has come at a terrible cost.

Read more here:

That the embargo failed miserably is not mentioned, and likely he does not care. But he will clearly have influence over the president-elect, and whatever he has will be geared toward rolling back current policy and keeping the embargo.

At this point I don't think embargo supporters even bother defending the policy itself. That it strengthens the regime is immaterial. Instead, what's important is not engaging, which provides a sense of higher moral ground even if you're ultimately helping the regime.


Monday, November 21, 2016

Trump and Macri Talk Buildings

According to Argentine journalist Jorge Lanata, when Donald Trump called Mauricio Macri, he asked if he could build a Trump building in Buenos Aires.

"Macri llo llamó. Todavía no se contó pero Trump le pidió que autorizaran un edificio que él está construyendo en Buenos Aires, no fue solo una charla geo política", contó Jorge Lanata en su monólogo del programa Periodismo para Todos. Trump le pidió al Presidente el permiso para poder formalizar la obra de su nuevo desarrollo inmobiliario que, según contó LA NACION estaba interesado en hacer hace muchos años pero no lo hicieron antes por las dificultades que imponía el cepo cambiario y las trabas a las importaciones.

If this is accurate, then it's ridiculous (we do know, however, that Macri used business ties as a way to connect to Trump, so it's a plausible story). Sadly, however, I think there will be many such examples while Trump is president. He is more interested in making money than actually governing, and there will be no shortage of politicians and investors eager to curry favor.

Update: Trump denies the story. So does Macri.


Sunday, November 20, 2016

Knausgaard's My Struggle Book 5

Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, Book 5 is mostly about his late teens and into his twenties. He's at a writing academy, then university and compulsory national service in Bergen, Norway, before finally publishing a novel.

He details how he's trying to figure out who he is. His sole goal is to be a writer, but when he writes it comes out hollow. He's given work to do with radio interviews and book reviews, but it is also depressing because it seems to mean he can write about writers and not be one. Realist style is his strength, which of course eventually becomes the basis for these very books. But back then, he saw his friends publish their first novels and he had nothing but a single short story in print. Only toward the end of the book does he succeed, but even then he finds no solace.

As with the other books, shame is ever-present. No doubt much of it stems from his abusive father (who is only sporadically mentioned in this one until the end, when he comes back with full force). Knausgaard never feels he's living up to his potential and tells people that freely. Dangerously, he also blacks out while drinking and does self-destructive things, not just embarrassing himself but also injuring his brother, cheating on his girlfriend and later his wife, and getting arrested. Then he feels shame about that too. It can be painful to read.

He captures mood so well. His emotional gears shift up and down, and as a reader you can feel them, especially because he is so painstakingly honest. He's fumbling forward with a tremendous amount of emotional baggage and trying to get you to feel it with him. As he notes, he was searching for "future and meaning" (p. 527).

As for Book 6, which is the last, as of June 2016 the translator was saying publication would be sometime in 2017. It'll be about 1,200 pages long and I am looking forward to it.

Here are my reviews of Book 1, Book 2, Book 3, and Book 4.


Trump Pushing Latin America to China

The Wall Street Journal looks at how Latin America may be reassessing China in the light of a protectionist Trump presidency.

Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a 78-year-old former Wall Street banker who chose to visit China on his first official trip, joked earlier this year that he would “grab a saw and cut” ties with the U.S. if Mr. Trump won. Mr. Kuczynski was more serious recently, warning about protectionism and saying he would support a Pacific trade accord that added China and Russia if the U.S. pulls out. 
His trade minister, Eduardo Ferreyros, said this week he was hopeful Mr. Trump wouldn’t scrap the deal, but Peru was now interested in joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a Chinese-led free-trade agreement of 16 countries seen as a rival to the TPP.
PPK is the sort of pro-business leader the U.S. would typically connect to. Now it seems intent on alienating him. Up to this point, leftist governments had been very active in seeking out economic relationships with China and to a lesser extent Russia. Now our president-elect is encouraging rightist governments to do the same.

And of course they will. They want to trade, and if the U.S. is not interested then others will be. Obama is trying to get Latin America to wait, hoping that Trump doesn't fulfill his many unwise campaign promises. But why should they? In a time of uncertainty, look for the most certain deal. And it's not Trump's.


Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Performance of Becoming Human

I encourage everyone to buy Daniel Borzutzky's The Performance of Becoming Human, a collection of poems linking the United States and Latin America. Borzutzky just won the National Book Award for it. He is also the son of my friend and longtime co-author Silvia Borzutzky. Here's how he sums it up:

When I wrote this book, I was thinking about Chicago, a city I’ve lived in for nearly 20 years and care for very deeply. I was thinking of how Chicago destroys itself, abolishes public services, closes psychiatric hospitals, privatizes or shutters its public schools, and militarizes its police,” said Borzutzky, who is of Chilean ancestry. “I was thinking about how Chicago is like the Chile my parents left behind in the 1970s, which destroyed itself in many of the same ways. I was thinking about immigrants, refugees, and workers in the U.S. and abroad who give up their lives to survive in economies that exploit them and make them invisible.”

Go check it out!


Friday, November 18, 2016

Podcast Episode 12: Trump in Latin America

In Episode 12 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast I talk with Chris Sabatini about the Trump administration's possible policies in Latin America. One conclusion is that maybe the best case scenario is that the foreign policy bureaucracy takes over. Note: he was in Canada as we talked but that is entirely coincidental.


Trump and Maduro on Twitter

Lying on Twitter about how your political opponents are lying, while also lying about your accomplishments, is now a staple for Donald Trump. He's late to this game, though, as it's already a common practice for Latin American presidents, especially Nicolás Maduro. Given how both hate the opposition press and want a direct line to the people, we can expect both to keep it up as long as they're in office (and, like with Alvaro Uribe, we can also expect them to continue once they're out of office).

There are some differences. Maduro (or at least Maduro's account, because like Trump sometimes it's him and sometimes not) retweets like mad, which Trump has slowed. We'll have to see whether he retweets more admirers--retweeting flattery or false claims--in the future. And as yet, Trump has not started a salsa radio show. But Trump TV may well be around the corner.

Both have a conspiratorial bent. Maduro sees economic war, assassination attempts, and the Empire everywhere he looks. Trump sees the media calling him out for the often false things he says, which drives him crazy. For both, facts are negotiable, which makes Twitter a perfect medium. Press conferences just wouldn't work because they involve follow-up questions and give questioners the ability to frame the topic.

We'll also have to see whether Trump follows the Maduro model of saying increasingly unhinged things while your approval ratings plummet, holding on to the hope that all these admiring followers are actual indications of popular support.


Thursday, November 17, 2016

Could Latin America Unite Against Trump?

Reporters at Reuters say that Central American countries are looking to join forces with Mexico to form a joint strategy to respond to Donald Trump's victory. Remittances are critical to all these economies, and mass deportation will cripple them. They say they could expand this beyond Mexico and Central America as well.

On Wednesday, the day after a regional meeting in Honduras, the three countries released a joint statement asking their respective foreign ministries to join forces and formulate positions on jobs, investment and migration to deal with the new U.S. administration together, though the statement did not refer to Mexico.
 But Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, Guatemala's Jimmy Morales and El Salvador's leader Salvador Sanchez Ceren, have agreed to seek support from Mexico, said Hugo Martinez, El Salvador's foreign minister, confirming what another government source told Reuters earlier.
 "What the presidents told us was that aside from this group ... we could expand to look for contact with Mexico, at first, and then also with the other Latin American countries," Martinez said.

Latin American unity has always been an elusive target. It's been too hard to break through traditional rivalries, ideology and nationalism despite having many things in common. It will be interesting to see whether Donald Trump serves this purpose. There has never been an existential threat commonly faced by all Latin American countries at the same time.

South America does not face the same issues with regard to immigration. However, U.S. protectionism would be a problem, and Michel Temer asked Trump not to restrict trade. U.S. trade policy could slow economic growth and also drag down Latin American currencies. Meanwhile, Argentina is looking more closely at Canada in anticipation of negative change.

But could the governments of, say, Rafael Correa and Michel Temer join forces in some way against the negative effects of a Trump presidency? It would be historic, but chances are low.


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