Saturday, June 24, 2017

U.S. Influence in the OAS is Low

Mark Weisbrot has a post at Venezuela Dialogue arguing that the OAS is serving as a U.S. puppet as it tries to overthrow the Venezuelan government. He has questions that he clearly believes prove his point if you answer them. One in particular caught my attention:

How about the fact that the US government, led by Donald Trump and his allies filled with hatred for Venezuela, has more control over OAS decision-making at this time that it has had in decades?

The problem with this question is that it comes right as the Trump administration lost an OAS vote for the IACHR and the candidate was highly qualified by any standard. Of course, the U.S. also recently failed on more than one occasion to get enough support for action against the Maduro government.

I would actually amend his question as well, because I don't think Donald Trump hates Venezuela. He doesn't care about Venezuela at all. He will take pictures with people that Marco Rubio shuffles into the Oval Office and periodically continue the Obama targeted sanction policy, but I haven't seen anything beyond that. He does not care enough about Venezuela to do any serious work at the OAS to push U.S. policy.

This is all irrespective of whether you think his specific actions toward Venezuela (mostly confined to continuation of Obama's targeted sanctions) are good or not. My point is that evidence suggests that U.S. influence over the OAS is lower than it's been in some time. I suppose you could argue that the U.S. is telling Luis Almagro what to do, but this is a guy with decades of foreign policy work in the Uruguayan government, including as ambassador to several countries. Claiming he has no agency and no independent thought seems a stretch.

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Friday, June 23, 2017

Trump TweetAttacks Mexico

Donald Trump went after Mexico again in a tweet:


Putting Mexico in the same category as long-time war zones is exactly the kind of stereotype I actively try to counteract when teaching (I took my young children to Mexico last year--I would not take them to Syria). Trump's charge comes from a recent report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies and it specifically mentions Syria, though it cites only a Mexican government homicide report without any context.

The Mexican government felt obliged to respond, which it did on its website and also tweeted. Sadly ironic about the response was that it a) said we should not finger-point; and b) finger-pointed by specifically mentioning other Latin American countries that had worse homicide rates than Mexico.

This sort of outburst will have the effect of worsening U.S.-Mexican relations, damaging U.S.-Latin American relations, reducing U.S. credibility, and decreasing U.S. influence in the region.

And you know what? President Trump does not care. At a time when he's being hit from all directions with scandal, this is a little shot in the arm to his base. At least it's just on Twitter. Many past U.S. presidents have invaded in large part to pump up nationalist sentiment within their base (No one will mourn Manuel Noriega's recent death, but he found out what happens when a U.S. president rides a nationalist wave against the "other" in Latin America).

As Donald Trump would say, sad.

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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Baseball and Politics in Venezuela

ESPN has a great story that brings politics and baseball together. Octavio Hernandez taught himself some sabermetric skills in Venezuela, where data wasn't really used at all to analyze baseball. He also marches against the government.

"A couple weeks ago I was on a march, a demonstration, breathing tear gas, because we have a political system that is crumbling the whole state," Hernandez says. "To think about baseball makes me a little guilty at night. 
"But what I remember is, no, baseball is not necessary to humanity, but we can add to the analysis of humankind, to humanity's way of thinking, with the way we analyze baseball. If we analyzed politics here the way we analyze baseball, we maybe wouldn't be like this right now. If we were more focused on facts we could be a greater society."
This might be a stretch--just look at all the data analysis in the U.S. and our political system is in terrible shape--but the basic argument is that politics should be based on facts rather than false assumptions. Hernandez sees data as a foundation:

"We're not an organized country," he says. "Data is a form of organization, of order, and we don't have that here. We don't keep records. In the U.S. you can know, 'Oh, my grandpa was from Scotland.' You have long records. We don't know where our grandfather is from. You guys always have, 'Oh, 70 percent of people eat bananas in the morning.' We don't have that. It's not that we don't find it 'cool.' It's not part of us.

Meanwhile, he has to stop working periodically because of power outages when it rains and he has no way of bringing players to Venezuela because they're understandably afraid.

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Monday, June 19, 2017

Trump's Central America Policy

If you read through the "key deliverables" of last week's conference on Central America, what's striking is the continuity. The highlights:


  • Promote private sector growth and a favorable environment for investment
  • Combat organized crime and disrupt illegal networks
  • Improve citizen security
  • Promote information sharing
  • Support the Alliance for Prosperity
  • Acknowledge U.S. demand for illegal drugs


People have expressed concern that Trump would mark a return to a military-led policy. One problem with this argument is that under Obama the U.S. military already played a central role (indeed, at the end of the Obama's term John Kelly was head of Southern Command), and if you read Obama's statements on Central America, they are not all that different from Trump's.

The one important difference, to be sure, is the commitment of resources. Will the Trump administration put its money where its mouth is? The fact that foreign aid across the board is being slashed does not leave much optimism.

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On Academic Writing

Mike Munger was interviewed in the Chronicle of Higher Education about academic writing, and there's a lot to like. I say that as someone who dislikes most of the advice I see about writing. The worst advice focuses on rules, which I hate. Someone even once said you needed to set aside a certain time and even ignore your own bladder until by God that time had passed. The vast majority of writing rules take what should be a creative process and turns it into drudgery. Sometimes creation involve drudgery but we shouldn't heap more on.

In Mike's interview, the key points for me are that you should never let perfection get in the way of submission--send that manuscript out and forget about it for a while. You should also write as you research, not wait until the end. Let your ideas develop, even knowing you'll have to cut stuff later. Finally, and perhaps more important, "reward yourself with affirmation." Sending an article out for review is an accomplishment, so reward yourself. When it's published, reward yourself again. Shoot, if you tell yourself you'll write 500 words today and you do, then reward yourself.

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Saturday, June 17, 2017

NoDa Brew Dash 6K Fail

I ran the NoDa Brewing Company Brew Dash 6K trail race at the Whitewater Center here in Charlotte this morning. I haven't run very many trail races so it's a nice change of pace and the race itself was fun.

It was, however, the Sadly Sober 6K because there was no beer. NoDa is a great brewery but this was 100% false advertising and they should change the name. At many races you get Michelob Ultra, which people apparently buy. I drink it when it's free and I've just finished running. I was looking forward to finishing a race and actually drinking good beer. Instead, there were small Dixie cups of tepid water. If you wanted to wait until 1 pm there was a festival, but when you finish a race before 10 am, waiting three hours in your car or sitting at a picnic table is not terribly appealing.

On the plus side, quite a few strangers were prompted to chat with each other based on their mutual frustration with a beerless beer race.

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Cuba Policy Takes

As we wait for announcement of some alteration of Cuba policy, here are some takes on the issue:

--Chris Sabatini says Obama created leverage with Cuba. Yep!

--Senator Patrick Leahy says opening up to Cuba keeps Russia at bay. That is, if you want to keep Russia at bay.

--David Wade says rolling back Obama policy damages, well, everything except the Cuban government.

--Rep. Ted Poe (R) says this would hurt U.S. agriculture, medical cooperation, and drug trafficking efforts.

The most likely policy shift is one that restricts travel more (right now travel authorizations are quite broad) but not entirely, and to try and maintain benefits for Cuban entrepreneurs instead of the state (i.e. the military). The tricky thing is that the two are partially contradictory. For example, you want more Americans going to Cuba and using Airbnb, because that money is going into people's pockets.

Assuming the administration really does make its announcement tomorrow, your best guess is that the talk will be tough, the Cuban government will be referred to as "very, very bad" and Obama will be labeled as "appeaser," then the actual details will be mostly continuity.

And finally, it seems the worst way to get the administration's attention is by sending a letter because there is no person in the position who would be reading letters. It even confuzzles the Cuban American National Foundation, and they're lobbying experts.

The Cuban American National Foundation hasn’t sent the administration a letter or position paper, partly because with so many unfilled positions in the Trump administration and uncertainty over who is really driving Cuban policy, “the question is who do you talk to?” said José “Pepe” Hernández, president and one of the founders of the exile organization“It’s very confusing, really.”

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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Podcast Episode 36: Central America and Trump

In Episode 36 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast I talk with Mike Allison, who is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Scranton (and who will forever be known as the first repeat guest on the podcast). He also blogs at Central American Politics. The general topic is Central America and Trump, so we cover the upcoming international conference, immigration, and the general outlook for Central America policy.


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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

China Woos Central America

Panama severed ties with Taiwan and established diplomatic relations with China. This is important news and shows the odd way in which Central America has played an important role in the Taiwan-China dispute. For years, the region was firmly in Taiwan's court, but China has worked very hard, both diplomatically and economically, to pry it away. They've poured money in, sometimes illicitly.

This gives rise to what might the saddest sentence in the NYT article:

Panama “was at the top of the list” of Taiwan’s most important remaining diplomatic allies, said Ross Feingold, a senior adviser in Taipei at D.C. International Advisory.*

When Panama is on the top of your list, you're in trouble. Taiwan lost Costa Rica in 2007, but in Latin America still has the Dominican Republic,  Guatemala, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, and Nicaragua (and Belize if we're just looking geographically).

It's one of the truly rare times when Central American countries have leverage. It's in their interest to let woo China them but play hard to get. It would be interesting to see what constitutes the tipping point--when do you finally say yes?

*Yes, former Senator Russ Feingold, now lobbyist.

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Monday, June 12, 2017

PPK's Venezuela Idea

Pedro Pablo Kuczynski continues his role as regional leader by calling for a multilateral arbitration group that would consist of 2-3 "democratic countries" and 2-3 countries of Venezuela's choice (I am not sure whether there is supposed to be an implication that such countries are not democratic; I hope not. Some of it might be selective quotation). The group would elect a president.

There are plenty of potential logistical questions (e.g. who would choose the former group) but this is a solid idea. The broad multilateral context is large and prone to breaking down more easily. There is a disappointing lack of urgency in Latin America about the Venezuela crisis. This solution perhaps has the possibility of getting support from Bolivia and Ecuador, which have talked vaguely of "dialogue" without specifics. Evo Morales is all in for Nicolás Maduro but in fact we don't yet know if Lenín Moreno will follow the same lead as Rafael Correa. Looking at Ecuadorian press, it seems corruption is dominating the news so perhaps that is also dominating Moreno's time.

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Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Merkel Telegram

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is coming to Mexico to meet with Enrique Peña Nieto, with the explicit message of solidarity against Donald Trump. How appropriate that it comes almost exactly 100 years after the last time this sort of thing happened. I wonder if Merkel is offering up Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona this time (given Texan politics, Mexico might politely decline).

Germany’s ambassador to Mexico, Viktor Elbling, suggested the visit is in part meant to demonstrate his nation’s leadership on the world stage and define new alliances that aren’t centered on the United States. "The fact that she is coming to Mexico in this difficult international political climate is a very clear sign of solidarity,” he said in a statement. 
In Mexico, where many feel not only afraid of the economic ramifications of Trump’s policies, but also deeply offended by his rhetoric, that support is welcome.

In international relations, countries can bandwagon or balance. Since the Trump administration is intent on making enemies out of friends, Mexico is disengaging and looking toward other powerful countries. As leader of the European Union, Germany is a natural choice, as is China. The Trump administration is consciously handing its influence to other countries.

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Friday, June 09, 2017

WOLA Podcast on Venezuela

Adam Isacson talks to David Smilde about Venezuela in a WOLA podcast, which is worth your time. Some quick highlights:

--the point of the constitutional assembly is likely to create a communal system of governance that basically serves to avoid a popular vote.

--all the opposition can do is go to the streets because there is no power to vote. He repeats the long-standing point that the opposition needs to expand its base of support. They're not going to the barrios, but they need not just to garner support but also to explain why people who live there shouldn't participate in the constitutional assembly.

--the opposition needs to condemn the violence on its side (e.g. don't applaud protesters who look like they're going to The Hunger Games is one memorable quote).

--he thinks there's a chance of a consensus statement (say, 2/3) by the OAS, which might lead to some sort of "group of friends" who could establish dialogue with the Maduro government. I am still in the "hopeful but doubtful" mindset.

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Thursday, June 08, 2017

Keith Law's Smart Baseball

Keith Law's new book Smart Baseball is a great primer on the fast rise of advanced metrics in baseball. He starts by picking apart the old measures, especially wins, saves, and RBIs, given how arbitrary they are and how they do not tell you what they purport to. He then moves to newer measures with their pluses and minuses, showing how they do a better job of telling us what we need to know--what players. He ends with what I thought was the most interesting part of the book, which is an insider's view of scouting and analytics.

If you follow baseball, then the discussion about statistics shouldn't be new, but you'll learn (or at least I did) from the logic he lays out about the relative usefulness of different measures. The book raised questions I hadn't really thought about. In particular, he notes that all teams now use advanced statistics, yet lauds the Cubs for how analytics helped lead them to the World Series, which helped them especially with defense. Yet this year the Cubs, including defense, are mediocre. So how we statistically measure the importance of statistics?

Further, what (if any) is the relationship between advanced metrics and baseball injuries, which have been increasing over time? Are players doing things differently or teams demanding different things as a result of knowing more? Law notes toward the end that one of the next advances could be finding ways t to identify characteristics of players that would decrease injury risk.

The only downside is that I tired of the insults hurled at those who focused too much on the old statistics. It was sort of funny at the beginning but never stopped. The save is like the Alien & Sedition Act (p. 5); "dumber than a sack of hair" (p. 19); "canonical tale told by an idiot" (p. 29); "swamped by all the bullshit" (p. 81); "strong Luddite streak" (p. 110); "sheer stupidity" (p. 114); "typical codswallop" (p. 157); "fetid anachronisms" (p. 208); and even using the word "clowns" twice on the page (p. 218) to refer to sportswriters. The Twitter-like zingers were a distraction for me.

So gloss over those, and focus on the argument, which is thought provoking.

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Vicente Fox's Mission in Life

Former presidents in the Americas have done lots of things. They've done good works, they've fled to the U.S. to avoid prosecution, they've gone to jail, they've painted bad portraits, they've trolled political opponents on Twitter, they've plotted to run for president again, they've made money, they've run for a legislative seat, and so on.

Vicente Fox is the only one who has made it his mission to make merciless fun of the President of the United States. I wrote about this just a short while ago. Now he's back with a comedy that is biting.



Who would've thought such a thing would ever happen?

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Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Podcast Episode 35: FRUS, Central America, and Venezuela

In Episode 35 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk about the new volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States series and how for me it sparked thoughts about Central American migration (specifically how unforeseen it seems to be, though we need to see the Reagan volumes eventually) and comparisons to Venezuela today.


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Somoza and Maduro

The Central America 1977-1980 volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series was just released today. Naturally, a large proportion of it is dedicated to Nicaragua. Almost 40 years ago*, a beleaguered president told the U.S. to stop picking on him and declared confidently that friendly governments in the OAS would block these nasty U.S. policies.



This should sound quite familiar, though the confidence in OAS allies is significantly weaker for Nicolás Maduro.

* April 16, 1978. The clip is from page 210 of the volume.

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LASA Resolution on Venezuela

The Latin American Studies Association has embarrassed itself by refusing to issue a resolution condemning repression in Venezuela. Via John Polga-Hecimovich on Twitter:



If you need a translation from academic-speak, "historicize" means "find a way to put in tons of caveats to prevent any actual statement against the government from being made." LASA has put out plenty of "one-sided" resolutions over the years. There was one on Obama policy four years ago that was literally incoherent. I also should note, though, that last year's statement condemning Dilma Rousseff's ouster was spot on. And correctly one-sided! Nobody asked to "historicize" that.

Focusing on the government is appropriate. The state (in any functioning polity, not just Venezuela) has far more power than civil society and in Latin America has the responsibility (as stated in international agreements) of governing democratically. Giving the Venezuelan opposition responsibility for the Venezuelan government's repression is wrong.

BTW, Kellyanne Conway called and she wants royalties for the use of "alternative phrasing."

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Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Review of Merridale's Lenin on the Train

One hundred years ago Vladimir Lenin took a train from Switzerland to Petrograd (St. Petersburg). It was nearly impossible to get through Germany because of the war, but the Germans let him through. They figured he could both upset Russian politics and get Russia out of the war. Catherine Merridale's new book Lenin on the Train details the trip and the intrigue it involved. Her message goes well beyond that particular moment in time.

"The history of Lenin's train is not exclusively the property of the Soviets. In part, it is a parable about great-power intrigue, and one rule is that great powers almost always get things wrong" (p. 9). The irony for Germany is that helping Lenin ultimately made life for Germans far worse in the long run. People (including inside Russia) constantly underestimated Lenin and were not too concerned about the political ramifications of his return. His opponents figured they could just accuse him of collusion with Germany. The book ends before the October Revolution and so we just see him poised to take power. Germany's decision to let him through facilitate that.

Along the same lines, "the quick-thinking servants of the world's great powers still proffer plans to intervene, to jostle, scheme, and sponsor factions that they barely understand" (p. 270). And for Merridale, this means destroying hope for democracy in the Russian case, but elsewhere too.

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Twiplomacy in Latin America

Twiplomacy is a new study done by Burson-Marsteller, a PR firm. As the name suggests, it looks at world leaders' use of Twitter. Here are the most followed presidents in Latin America:



It's a great read with a lot of detail about how different leaders deal with Twitter, how they promote it, how they interact with each other, etc.

But from a social science perspective there are a number of problems with the study. Most importantly, it does not really define "influence." Having a lot of retweets indicates "effectiveness," they write, but what does that translate into? According to the study, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández is incredibly "effective." So what? Does that help him achieve his policy goals?

I wrote about this exact issue four years:

Further, this tells us nothing about effectiveness. Presidents want to reach people and thereby gain support, but as yet I've not seen any evidence--perhaps with polling?--about whether it benefits them politically. An aide to Dilma Rousseff said that she thought Twitter is a "total waste of time." Clearly others disagree, but we don't have a good grip on how to evaluate that.

We still don't have a good grip on it. According to the study, Latin American leaders tweet the most of any region, with Mexico and Venezuela at the top. The presidents of both countries are extremely unpopular and clearly ineffective. So we could potentially even argue that hyperactive tweeting is a sign of desperation and weakness.

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Monday, June 05, 2017

The Upside of Not Filling Positions

The Washington Post has a list of the hundreds of unfilled cabinet positions, many of them without even a nominee. There are a number that relate to Latin America. Below are those that directly relate to the region, though of course there are countless others that deal with immigration, trade, energy, etc., etc.

--Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs
--Ambassador to Argentina
--Ambassador to Venezuela (this is not just a Trump issue, obviously)
--Ambassador to the Dominican Republic
--Ambassador to Cuba
--Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States

The first is particularly important because the individual in that position helps frame events in the region for the president. Given Donald Trump's disdain for the State Department, I wouldn't be surprised if this stayed unfilled a long time, essentially meaning that the interim, career diplomat Francisco Palmieri, will stay in there almost permanently.

The key position for Latin America therefore is Latin America director at the National Security Council, which does not require confirmation. Rumor (or at least it seems to be rumor) has it that former CIA Director for Latin America Juan Cruz is on the job, but like Rick Waddell before him, there is nothing official. And yet Univision claimed that May 15 was his first day on the job. If you go the White House website for information, you will find it as unfilled as all the cabinet positions.

What we do know, however, is that at the moment the important slots are not filled with ideologues (with Cruz I am going by the appraisal of moderate Obama officials who know him). We also know that the Trump administration has largely maintained Obama policies in Latin America (with immigration and the wall as the glaring exception).

What I am getting at here is that if not filling positions means relatively moderate or at least not-stupid policies, then keep 'em unfilled. Better no leadership than bad leadership.

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Friday, June 02, 2017

Income Inequality in Latin America

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean just released its report on income inequality. There is actually some good news in there. Highlights:


  1.  Income inequality has done down from 2008-2015 across the region.
  2. Venezuelan inequality is among the lowest in the region, but has not changed over that time. (And indeed, one issue with looking at equality is that if everyone is lacking, then equality looks quite good. Just look at Cuba during the Special Period).
  3. As always, Colombia is persistently high, but at least decreasing a bit. The displaced play a role in that figure, and we can only hope the peace process changes that dynamic.
  4. Bolivia improved from 2008-2012, then got worse from 2012-2015.
  5. If you look at physical assets, then the Gini coefficient is 0.93. In other words, beyond income the ownership gap is extreme.
  6. Social spending as a percentage of GDP is far, far lower than the U.S. or Europe.
  7. Women, indigenous people, and Afro-Latin Americans are suffering disproportionately (which should surprise no one).

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Thursday, June 01, 2017

Brazilian Prisons

Abraham Arias was in my Latin American Politics class this past semester, and wrote a very good op-ed on Brazilian prisons. With some editing we got it into Latin America Goes Global.


Brazil is among the countries in the region facing the systemic issue of “policies that over-incarcerate.” The policy has resulted in taking the drug wars from the street to close quarters in over-populated prisons. And privatization only has worsened the trend; under current law, public inspection of prisons is prohibited in private centers, preventing the state from identifying and addressing inhumane conditions such as poor food, overcrowding or insufficient health services—conditions that tend to spawn violence and criminality within prison walls.

Go take a look.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The OAS and Venezuela

At Venezuela Dialogues, a group of experts gives differing opinions about what the role of the OAS should be with regard to Venezuela. Rather than engage each argument, I think it's useful to step back and take a more philosophical perspective.

1. Should the OAS be "impartial" or "neutral"? This makes me uncomfortable. The OAS sent a delegation to Chile in 1974 and made a bunch of recommendations. That certainly wasn't neutral and I don't think anyone today would think it a problem.

2. Should both sides be equally criticized? This is similar to the question above. All things being equal, the state in any situation is far more powerful than civil society and so should be held to a much higher standard.

3. Should an OAS head (or the head of any international organization) be outspoken? I'm agnostic, but some of the authors correctly note that personalization of a conflict actually decreases the effectiveness and leverage of the organization.

4. Should we downplay criticism of human rights abuses in one country because other countries with abuses are not getting as much attention? No. I think all countries should be scrutinized, but that failure to scrutinize one should not detract from the serious nature of abuses elsewhere.

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Pineapple Face is Dead

Manuel Noriega is dead. The main thing to know about him is that everything about him was sordid. And in the end, he had no friends or allies.

Randy Archibald has a good summary of his rise and fall, all of which is sordid. The United States government used him and overlooked his obvious cocaine ties (and personal proclivities) as long as he was useful. Once he was no longer useful, it was convenient for George H. W. Bush to get rid of him and look tough in the process. Stephen Kinzer, a journalist who has written a lot on Central America, tweeted the following this morning:



That about sums up the U.S. side. He was an asset until he wasn't. Then the U.S. got very high and mighty, conveniently pretending it hadn't been involved in propping him up in the first place.

Meanwhile, Yoani Sánchez tweeted this:



The Cubans had worked him too, but no one wants to claim him anymore. He's dead and no one will miss him.

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Monday, May 29, 2017

Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

I have learned over the past year that there is nothing quite like a David Foster Wallace essay. I read A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. He's so smart, so funny, and so not in tune with everyone else. They're good essays, but not as good as the collection in Consider the Lobster.

"Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley" - a story about how he played tennis as a teenager in Illinois, all about how he was not all that gifted but very good at the instant calculations needed to account for angle, wind, and the like. If you are not into tennis, and I am not, then the first 2/3 of the essay might bore you a bit, but he gets in stride with the last part, where he discusses tornadoes.

"E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction" - Wallace was addicted to TV and in this essay tries to connect it to fiction writing, arguing that fiction writers should take TV more seriously. This essay is more academia-ish, with unironic footnotes, so gets old after a while.

"Getting Away From Pretty Much Being Away From it All"- this sort of journalist-on-assignment thing is where Wallace is funniest, even though, as his biographer writes, he was "not particularly worried by veracity." It''s abundantly clear that he doesn't like pigs. Or rides. Or poultry. Or a bunch of things. I started to feel bad for him almost, with stream-of-consciousness writing born largely of sensory of overload, and then little nuggets like, "I ask a little kid to describe the taste of his Funnel Cake and he runs away."

"Greatly Exaggerated" - a Serious Essay of Literary Theory. Skim judiciously.

"David Lynch Keeps His Head" - he's on the set of Lynch's Lost Highway. He defines Lynchian as "a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former's perpetual containment in the latter." Fun essay to read, though very rooted in the 1990s.

"Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff About Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness" - I have never heard of Michael Joyce, but it seems he was a tennis player and in 1995 he played in the Canadian Open.

"A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" - this reviews a week-long Caribbean cruise he took for Harper's. It is funny but you (or at least I did) have to get over his basic disgust with the entire idea of a cruise. As it goes on--and it's 100 pages--he gets more incisive and funny precisely about how he doesn't fit and basically laughs at himself. As a semi-agoraphobe, he scuttles out of his room for short periods of time, never leaving the ship when it docks, accumulates brief experiences, then runs back to his room to write about them in great detail. He makes a game effort to join in the fun, including doing crafts with old people, about which concludes, "I have absolutely no fucking idea what's going on," (p. 337) which made me laugh out loud. BTW, there are 137 footnotes in the story. That's a lot even for David Foster Wallace.

One last note is that his thought about being passively entertained and how empty it is makes you realize that Infinite Jest was rattling around in brain. At that time it was finished and in the process of editing.

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Saturday, May 27, 2017

Resistance to Cuba Sanctions Increases

Unrestricted travel to Cuba is getting closer and closer.

Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) reintroduced a bill Thursday to eliminate all prohibitions on travel to Cuba. The bill, which had only eight cosponsors when first filed in 2015, now has the support of 55 senators from both parties.

And:

In a separate move to push the agenda forward, another piece of legislation was introduced on Friday to lift the trade embargo. The Freedom to Export to Cuba Act of 2017 was introduced by Sens. Leahy, Flake, Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming).

This is the sound of inevitability moving its way along. The ultimate irony is if Trump ushered in some of the most radical changes in Cuba policy since the Eisenhower Administration. But it's entirely possible. He has shown no interest in fulfilling campaign promises, this appeals to his business sense, he could personally profit from it, and he could claim to be bolder than any other presidents. It's gift-wrapped for him.

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Friday, May 26, 2017

Electoral Fun in Venezuela

Nicolás Maduro had announced a constitutional assembly, and now Anabella Abadi and Francisco Toro have a discussion of the electoral rules. The clear problem is simple:


how do you take 10-15% support in the opinion polls and turn that into 50%+1 of the seats in an elected Assembly?

Doing so requires creativity and by necessity also requires complexity. You have to advantage rural areas and specific groups of people, which means malapportionment. You may remember that malapportionment has been a key feature of the Venezuelan electoral system for years, including under Hugo Chávez, meaning that opposition votes have long been worth less. The main difference is that Chávez had a solid foundation of support to begin with.

This is a desperate and ad hoc effort to slap some facade of legitimacy on a crumbling government. And given the intensity of political conflict now, who knows whether the unwieldy body will ever actually meet.

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Fox Trolls Trump

We live in such strange times. Disparaging U.S. presidents is not new--just think back to Hugo Chávez's famous "devil" speech at the United Nations but it's been focused on ideology and foreign policy. Nowadays Donald Trump is universally the source of jokes and criticism. Left, right, doesn't matter.

The current example is that former Mexican President Vicente Fox made a video for Donald Trump, mocking him and "the bees buzzing inside your brain," complete with the camera focusing on a piece of chocolate cake. It is quite insulting. He then put it on Twitter, complete with bad English.



Fox has been trolling Trump for a while, This takes it all one step further by actually having a full production, with script and everything.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Latin America Appointees

Kudos to Chris Sabatini and Latin America Goes Global for keeping everyone updated on who will fill the Latin America positions in the Trump administration. Here's the latest post.

The nominee for the key National Security Council post appears to be Juan Cruz, who was the CIA Director for Latin America but who Mark Feierstein says is pragmatic. In the same article, Dan Restrepo also spoke highly of him. But then here's this gem:


"I don't know his ideology," he said. "Those guys are paid not to let on, so it's hard to tell." 
Univision was unable to find a photograph of Cruz or any reference to him on the internet, a testament to his spycraft.
OK, that's a bit much. But it does mean we just don't know what his advice to Trump will be like. Just as we already know that Trump may or may not listen to what his advisors say.

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Sunday, May 21, 2017

Cuban Government Goes Outside DC

The Cuban government has always understood U.S. politics better than the vast majority of Americans. It (really, meaning Fidel Castro) knew how the president must deal with public opinion, how parties interacted, how the executive-legislative relationship functioned, and how interest groups interacted at all levels.* So it's not surprising now that Cuban diplomats, led by Ambassador José Ramón Cabañas (also active on Twitter), have been going all over the United States, to universities and local governments, even in places like Montana, to introduce people to Cuba and thereby try to make it harder for the Trump administration to roll back President Obama's reforms.

This is smart, because it's outside DC that Cuba can really make a case. Governors of both parties from farm states have been traveling and selling to Cuba for years. Farmers don't care about the revolution, or the Bay of Pigs, or anything else. Mayors want to know how to better serve their constituents. Universities want travel, cultural exchange, and discussion. So yes, you have lobbyists like everyone else, but you campaign and make yourself visible. All of these activities help increase the political cost for rolling back normalization.

*read Back Channel to Cuba to see how Fidel mentioned these things in messages to U.S. presidents.

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Saturday, May 20, 2017

Latin America Economic Forecast

There is a new IMF economic forecast for Latin America, and after years of reading and blogging about them, I can say they vary little. In fact, one of my goals when I teach Latin American Politics is to drive home the basic argument:

Growth is up when commodity prices are up

Growth is down when commodity prices are down

See how easy that is? Latin America is a commodity-dependent region, period.

But there is a new and ugly twist.

The outlook and risks for Central America and Mexico are being influenced by their exposure to the United States through trade, migration, and foreign direct investment. Mexico’s real GDP growth is expected to decelerate to 1.7 percent in 2017. Uncertainty about future trade relations with the United States and higher borrowing costs are expected to more than offset the positive effect from stronger U.S. growth.

Sadly, the Trump administration is hurting Latin American economies just from uncertainty and incompetence.

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Friday, May 19, 2017

Tanner Colby's Some of My Best Friends Are Black

I read Tanner Colby's Some of My Best Friends Are Black. It's a white guy who grew up in the South making a good effort to figure out integration, based on the epiphany that he has no black friends.

It's earnest and informative, but scattered. He moves around the South, looking at unexpected twists and turns (such as reasons why some black communities resisted integration). The beginning is partly his story because it involves interviewing people he knew, but then moves on to other areas.

The book really calls out for structure, some way to show how all this fits together in a coherent way, but there isn't any. If you want to read some mostly interesting but sometimes wandering stories, then great. If you want to finish the book with a new way of thinking about integration, then it's not that useful.

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Podcast Episode 34: Violence Against Journalists in Mexico

In Episode 34 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast I talk with Jan-Albert Hootsen, who is Mexico Correspondent for the Committee to Protect Journalists, Trouw and America Magazine. As you might guess, he’s been focusing a lot on how dangerous it is to be a journalist in Mexico, and that’s the topic of conversation. Among other things, we talk about the murder of Javier Valdez and the complicity of the Mexican government (at all levels and across parties).


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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Roots of the Venezuelan Crisis

John Polga-Hecimovich has a nice article (detailed and loaded with links) on the historical roots of the Venezuelan crisis. He discusses partyarchy and its disintegration, oil dependence, elections, and poor economic decision-making. One lesson in particular that he draws caught my attention.


Politically, it suggests that free and fair elections are necessary but not sufficient for democracy, and that democracy requires effective ongoing citizen participation, political representation, and political equality.

In my Latin American Politics class, we use the concept of "polyarchy" as a starting point. Are there elections and competition? From there you can start talking about representation, individual liberties, and so on. So I agree with his point.

But I also think we need to emphasize that free and fair elections are critical. They are central to legitimacy, and right now the Venezuelan government is suffering badly from illegitimacy. Indeed, elections are central to the entire crisis because blocking them is what has intensified the opposition to the government.

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Monday, May 15, 2017

What's Missing From Venezuela Explanations

When I discuss the Cuban Revolution in my Latin American Politics class, I always make sure to spend time talking about why it was popular and what programs Cubans liked. If you don't do this, students are left with the impression that it never had any foundations of support, which is false. This is the problem with yesterday's New York Times "interpreter" article about the development of the Venezuelan.

It becomes a presentist argument, where you use today's sensibilities to understand the past. Right now there are mass protests and even lots of Chavistas are unhappy. But rewind a decade and that's not the case. Hugo Chávez won elections all the time. People were lifted out of poverty. There are many popular social programs that poor Venezuelans appreciated. The article suggests that a majority of Venezuelans have been been outraged since Day One.

This isn't a normative argument (i.e. whether you approved of Chávez or not, or even Fidel Castro) but an empirical one, and it is separate from the question of democracy being eroded. Without widespread popular support, Chávez couldn't have ruled as he did. That should be part of the narrative.

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Sunday, May 14, 2017

Communists Write to Maduro

There is still a Communist Party in the United States, and it has translated (or at least approvingly published) an open letter to the government of Nicolás Maduro written by the Venezuelan Communist Party. Once you wade through the jargon, the message really is that all moderates need to be kicked out and radical forces should clamp down hard on all non-radicals. Then you've got "peace" (I will leave you to decide what "peace" means).

At the same time, in the context of a wavering and indecisive petty bourgeoisie in power, we call upon the most class conscious and militant sectors of the popular and workers’ movements, the peasantry, the middle strata, the revolutionary intellectuals and the patriotic officers to forge a block of forces to lead the wide patriotic, anti-imperialist alliance. Such and alliance must halt the seditious plans of the pro-US right and displace the reformist-appeasement sectors in government, which tend to favor the interests of the big capitalists and form pacts with social democratic elements of the right wing.  
Only an broad, popular unity, led by the organized and conscious working class can guarantee the defense of the Bolivarian nation and the deepening of the revolutionary changes towards the real construction of socialism on strong scientific foundations.
This is a step that Chavista leaders have never wanted to take, perhaps because the current system allows so much self-enrichment. But Hugo Chávez himself talked about "21st Century Socialism" as distinct from the 20th century, and therefore not in line with the Communists. At this point if the government cracks down harder, it's out of desperate self-preservation rather than ideological purity.

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Friday, May 12, 2017

Another Venezuelan Scapegoat

Nicolás Maduro fired his Health Minister, presumable for telling the truth that infant and maternal mortality jumped, while malaria and diphtheria were also more prevalent.

In a move that Donald Trump would be proud of, Venezuelan state media reports that Tareck Al Assaimi made the announcement on Twitter (here's the tweet). There is no official reason.

Of course, ministers are routinely sacked when a problem pops up. It gives the impression of doing something. In this case, however, it immediately boomerangs right back at Maduro, whose policies have been generating shortages. I assume the lesson for the next minister is to never release any statistics. The government is already famous for not wanting to release inflation statistics. In general, statistics of any kind make the government look really bad.

Update: even UNICEF is talking about the data. Yet another reason the government will try to find ways to suppress the release of any more.

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Nick Hornby's The Polysyllabic Spree

Nick Hornby's The Polysyllabic Spree (2004) immediately both hit me with irony and made me think I wish more people write such books. It's a short collection of essays, simply listing the books he bought and the books he read, with discussion, including personal stuff that pops up and admitting how many of the bought books were not yet read. That's reality.

My only quibble is that Hornby is less funny than he appears to think he is. I may well be guilty of the same, but I've never published a book of personal essays. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it, and would buy another (he has several such books, it seems).

But the irony is that because of a receipt I stuck in the book, I know I bought it from The Last Word used bookstore here in Charlotte (not far from UNC Charlotte, great store). Anyway, I bought the book over two months ago and basically forgot about it. I found it cleaning up my desk at home and then finally read it.

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

Trump Negotiates NAFTA

Donald Trump recently had an interview with The Economist and talked quite a bit about NAFTA. Besides the almost entirely inarticulate discussion about his goals, one particularly interesting point is that Trump, the master negotiator, seems not to understand that the leaders of Canada and Mexico are coordinating against him.

Now at the same time I have a very good relationship with Justin [Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister] and a very good relationship with the president of Mexico. And I was going to terminate NAFTA last week, I was all set, meaning the six-month termination. I was going to send them a letter, then after six months, it’s gone. But the word got out, they called and they said, we would really love to…they called separately but it was an amazing thing. They called separately ten minutes apart. I just put down the phone with the president of Mexico when the prime minister of Canada called. And they both asked almost identical questions. “We would like to know if it would be possible to negotiate as opposed to a termination.” And I said, “Yes, it is. Absolutely.” So, so we did that and we’ll start.

What's amazing is that Trump thinks this is amazing, when in fact he's getting played.

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Military Spending in Latin America

Elizabeth Gonzalez at AS/COA has a nice post on military spending in Latin America, using SIPRI data. Some highlights:

--Colombia spends a higher percentage of its GDP on the military than the United States. It should be a goal to reduce that drastically with the peace process underway.

--Venezuela's spending fell 56% last year, the largest decrease in the world. This is not good news for the government because lower level officers who struggle to pay the bills and buy food will not be particularly loyal.

--as a percentage of GDP, Honduras is fifth in the region (1.6%), which doesn't bode well for human rights and democracy in a country where both are weak.

--Only Colombia and Argentina increased military spending last year, which is good, though there is no particular reason for Argentina to do so.

--as you might guess, the biggest drops overall were in oil-producing countries.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Podcast Episode 33: The CIA and Latin American Intellectuals in the Cold War

In Episode 33 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with Patrick Iberwho is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Texas at El Paso (but soon to be at the University of Wisconsin. He studies the history of U.S.-Latin American relations, and is the author of Neither Peace Nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America (you can see my review here). I wasn't sure what to title this one--we talk about his book, which is about intellectuals and Cold War funding from the U.S. and USSR in Latin America, but also about his experiences on and off the tenure track.


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Walk Loud and Don't Bother With The Stick

Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Francisco Palmieri, laid out some of the elements in Donald Trump's Latin America policy.  He focused on Cuba and Venezuela.

--The administration will be unveiling "changes" to the Obama administration's Cuba policy, to somehow be more focused on human rights.

--Trump is "concerned" about Venezuela and thinks the solution is "more democracy."

There are no details and little chance Trump is paying all that much attention to Latin America, which is good. The best case scenario is that Trump does very little and then proclaims victory, which has been a common pattern for him. I think it is also the most likely scenario.

Yes, H.R. McMaster met with Julio Borges and Trump talked to Pedro Pablo Kuczynski as well about Venezuela. Absent a Latin American response, however, there is not much Trump can or should do. Actually, a better way of putting this is that I do not think Trump is capable of doing anything more positive. It is better to very little than to do something counterproductive. He can feel free to claim credit if he wants.

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Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Tresquintos On The Chilean Presidential Race

Tresquintos is a site dedicated to political forecasting in Chile, run by Kenneth Bunker. They just published numbers on the presidential race (which will be in November 2017).



The upshot is that Sebastián Piñera is the favorite to win the first round, but only has a 33.9% chance of winning more than 40%. They estimate he'll get between 36.3% and 42.6%.

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Monday, May 08, 2017

Rick Waddell Is Out

Back in March I wrote a post about General Rick Waddell, who looked to be the next choice as Latin America expert on the National Security Council. Now Chris Sabatini points to the news that Waddell is out.

And finally, the White House chief of staff himself blocked McMaster this month from hiring Brigadier General Ricky Waddell as his deputy, complaining that McMaster failed to seek approval for that pick. McMaster had asked his inherited deputy to leave by May 10; she is now expected to stay on for the time being.

This is funny because as I noted, Waddell's own book showed very strong Trump-like proclivities. Now he appears to be the victim of infighting, which is always bad for presidents but seems especially intense in the chaotic and highly personalized Trump White House.

Now who? The number of people with knowledge of Latin America (I think H.R. McMaster is too professional to allow anything else), willing to serve Trump, and able to please everyone such that they pass muster is not especially large. Keep your eyes on Chris' list, I suppose, which is a good place to start.

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Perceptions of U.S. Policy in Venezuela

Uruguay's Frente Amplio passed a motion in its party congress condemning U.S. policy toward Venezuela:

Con una moción aprobada tras una jornada de debates y reflexiones, el movimiento político destacó que como parte de las intenciones del imperialismo estadounidense buscan "satanizar" a Venezuela y aislarlo en la región, como lo hicieron con Cuba. 

The motion goes on to cite U.S. Cold War policy, which in many ways is both common and unfortunate. Unlike Cuba back then, the U.S. is a minor player in the Venezuela crisis. Unlike Cuba, the U.S. president has no interest in Venezuela. Unlike Cuba, Venezuela is not a pawn in a global ideological battle. Unlike Cuba, Venezuela chose to leave the OAS. Unlike Cuba, the Venezuelan president is deeply unpopular. Unlike Cuba, Venezuela's democracy has gradually been eroded. And so on.

It's tempting to slap Cold War comparisons together in large part because it's so easy. You have to then assume that Dwight W. Eisenhower and Barack Obama are essentially interchangeable and their historical contexts irrelevant, but that's a small price to pay for a neat and tidy comparison. The U.S. wanted to destroy the Cuban revolution; the U.S. wants to destroy the Venezuelan revolution. Once you take that leap, then you can also enjoy a swim in conspiratorial waters, like giving cancer to Hugo Chávez.

But if you want to understand the crisis and the U.S. response to it, Cold War comparisons lead you astray pretty much immediately. And the U.S. isn't isolating Venezuela. It's isolating itself.


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Saturday, May 06, 2017

What "Dialogue" Should Mean in Venezuela

A few days ago Dany Bahar, a fellow at the Brookings Institute, had a Twitter thread about the need to reassure possible dissenters in the Venezuelan military. When people write about what needs to happen, we often hear about "dialogue." That conjures up images of having the opposition and government leaders sit down and talk. Typically we would think that such talk focuses on points of disagreement and compromise solutions to move forward. But as the crisis deepens, that makes no sense anymore.

Instead, dialogue should really consist of the opposition sending strong, clear, and targeted signals to members of the government, both civilian and military. Steve Levitsky talks about elite defection in a New York Times article today.


“Defection is harder when the other side isn’t just some guy you disagree with about tax policy but rather is the enemy,” Mr. Levitsky said. “Moving to opposition, calling for Maduro’s fall, is still akin to treason. That atmosphere makes defection much harder.”

In other words, it is time for the opposition to reassure potential Chavista defectors. They may be nervous about the situation but more nervous about what the opposition will do to them if they break ranks. But if they break ranks in large numbers, then the government loses its moral authority, so the opposite should encourage it.

This is the same dynamic that civilian opposition had when trying to end military dictatorships in Latin America. An essential difference, though, is that the crimes of those regimes revolved around torture and murder. In Venezuela it is mostly corruption and drug trafficking, so it's potentially easier to accept the possible lack of accountability. The ultimate goal is a presidential election, and swallowing the freedom of some drug traffickers and money launderers may well be worth achieving it.

A final note is that even if you reassure them now, it's entirely possible--maybe even likely--that they will be tried eventually. Another lesson from Latin America is that memories are long, and courts are stronger than you think. The question, then, is whether that possible long-term accountability is enough to convince the opposite to lure Chavistas away from the government.

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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is essentially a novel of slavery in a totalitarian system. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov was put in a work camp in Siberia for having been been taken as a POW by the Germans in World War II, which prompted the state to label him a spy. The book is literally the depiction of one full day in the camp, from waking up to going to bed.

Beyond the clear political importance of the novel, which showed the brutality of Stalin and which therefore was a part of the reforms enacted by Khrushchev, you see what forced labor does to people. They were worked very hard in bitterly cold conditions, and spent much of their time figuring out ways to play the system. How to get slightly more food, how to stay warm, how to get some tobacco, whose palm to grease, all of which risk being put in solitary confinement. Escape is not possible because there's nowhere to go. Therefore you find small measures of personal contentment wherever you can.

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Friday, May 05, 2017

Weak Regional Response to Venezuela Crisis

The Colombian government posted a statement it issued along with Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Paraguay.

En el marco del apego irrestricto al Estado de Derecho y para lograr la estabilización de la situación en Venezuela, reiteramos la importancia de cumplir el calendario electoral, liberar los presos políticos, restituir las funciones de la Asamblea Nacional democráticamente elegida, así como garantizar la separación de poderes. 
Por último, hacemos un llamado a todos los sectores para no avalar acciones que generen más violencia y manifestamos nuestra convicción de que ha llegado la hora de concretar un acuerdo nacional incluyente que provea una solución duradera a la crítica situación que se vive en Venezuela.

All the bloodshed, refusal to hold elections, the bizarre call to rewrite the constitution, the dancing while Venezuela burns, and all we get is a statement from eight countries (the OAS has 35 members). I wrote a while ago that Latin America would not unite and I literally hoped I would be found wrong.

My sense has always been that Latin American pressure is an essential ingredient for putting pressure on the Maduro government. U.S. sanctions aren't particularly relevant. In the absence of regional pressure, Maduro holds on to the implicit or explicit support of fellow presidents who have his back and give him room not to compromise. This makes the job of ordinary Venezuelans a lot harder, and has the effect of ramping up violence.

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Thursday, May 04, 2017

Cuba Needs Oil

Russia has started shipping more oil to Cuba, as the Cuban government understandably fears the effects of Venezuela's disintegration.

According to Jorge Pinon, an oil expert at the University of Texas at Austin, the Cuba deal is equivalent to around 1,865,000 barrels and valued at $105 million at current prices. 
In comparison, Russia reported it shipped oil products to Cuba from 2010 through 2015 valued at $11.3 million. 
Cuba consumes 22,000 barrel per day of diesel and 140,000 barrels per day of oil products.

So an increase, but not a massive amount. And not a return to the glory days of subsidized Soviet oil shipment.

The lesson to take from this, though, is that the embargo can have an adverse effect on U.S. interests. If the U.S. were selling oil to Cuba, Russia wouldn't be news.

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Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad

I really liked Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad but sometimes the fantastical nature of it didn't quite work for me. In the mix of realism and altered history, the realism is the more powerful part. The depiction of slavery's brutality is potent and will stick in your head. His descriptions of the lives people make under bondage feels real. That in turn makes you feel for the characters. I wanted to keep turning pages.

The narrative drive of the novel, though, is the Underground Railroad. Not the actual historical one, but a real railroad that goes under the earth unnoticed and has stations across the South. There are quite a few other altered historical facts, though none as central. The train helped you see the changes in how each state dealt with slavery and the ways in which there was doubt about where it ended and how safe it could keep you. But the clash of real and imagined sometimes left me scratching my head.

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Thursday, April 27, 2017

Venezuela Leaving the OAS

Venezuela announced it will pull out of the OAS. This is getting compared to Cuba, which was suspended in 1962 and currently refuses to rejoin even though it has been told it can. There are, however, important differences, which all revolve around one main fact: in 1962 Cuba was operating from a position of strength. Fidel Castro thumbed his nose at the OAS and the United States, and was in complete control of his country. For Nicolás Maduro, the opposite is true. He's facing disaster at home and Chavismo is at its weakest.

For Venezuela, then, this measure is an act of desperation, a way of avoiding unpleasant votes and embarrassing pronouncements. It highlights to everyone how bad things had become in Venezuela and serves mostly to isolate Venezuela more. Few people see this in black-and-white ideological terms, which is the Cuba-type frame that Maduro wants to project.

One critical question now is how long do Bolivia and Ecuador in particular insist on pretending everything is fine? They were the key voices blocking any OAS action.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Podcast Episode 32: Lulu Garcia-Navarro

In Episode 32 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I was very excited to chat with Lulu Garcia-Navarro, host of NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday, who of course reported for many years from Latin America. We discuss some of the political stories in Latin America that left the biggest impression on her, especially Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina. And, happily (not to mention selfishly!), she affirms that academics have had a positive impact on helping a broader audience understand the region.


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Monday, April 24, 2017

Cuban TV and U.S. Soft Power

Cuban state television is trying to get slicker and more immediate to attract young Cubans. There are limits, of course, because of what the state will allow you to say, and the young people working there harbor no illusions in that regard, but feel they can push the envelope at least a little bit.

This is also where U.S. soft power should come in. Old-style, rabidly anti-Castro transmissions seemed to have little impact in the past and certainly will have minimal effect now. I would guess young Cubans want to hear about the future, not about the Cold War. They don't want to hear about the Bay of Pigs. There are a lot of things that could connect the U.S. and young Cubans, even as simple as hip-hop or sports. That's the audience we want to engage.

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Saturday, April 22, 2017

Cixin Liu's Death's End

Death's End (translated in 2016) is the third in the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy and it is incredible. Its scope is immense, centering on the "dark forest" problem in the universe, namely that civilizations immediately try to destroy each other when they discover a sign of life. Therefore often the best idea is to hide. This third book is by far the best, and somehow manages to both be apocalyptic and hopeful. After reading, you'll be reminded (or at least I was) of how your life is both meaningless and meaningful at the same time.

He deftly deals with the politics and religion of coming into contact with hostile forces. First earth tries a UN-type unified response, but over time that breaks down and there are violent clashes that result as humans try to figure out the best way to continue the species (this was the key theme in Book 1 as well). Deterrence was an important theme in Book 2 and its ramifications continue into Book 3. Religious beliefs shift and adapt, always looking in vain for a savior. Eventually a lot of human attention is spent on trying to make sure humans and Earth are remembered at all.

The science is remarkable. Discussions of light speed, dimensions (two-dimensional space becomes a major part of the story) and the structure of the universe itself are intense but not overwhelming. Lastly, it makes you wonder whether we should make any effort to find extraterrestrial life. It might not turn out well.

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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Maduro and Trump Hate Legitimate Protests

From Nicolás Maduro:

"The U.S. government, the State Department has given the green light, the approval for a coup process to intervene in Venezuela," President Nicolas Maduro said, speaking from the Miraflores Palace. 
... 
The “scenario” Maduro referred to consists in generating violence and deaths before blaming the Venezuelan government for allegedly violently attacking political opponents. Then the plot leaders would demand immediate elections, ahead of Maduro's official end of term in 2019.

From Donald Trump:



The nonsense is the same, and it is also self-defeating because assuming you believe your own nonsense it means underestimating your real opposition. It constitutes an effort to portray legitimate opposition to legitimately polarizing policies as paid for by outside agitators. Neither president is capable of self-reflection, through some combination of narcissism and desperation.

The Maduro one is worse, though, because it claims there is an evil plot to...have democratic elections as the constitution provides. The horror!

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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Venezuela Protests

There will be dueling protests in Venezuela today. The opposition wants massive turnout, while the government is trying to turn out its own supporters and deploy colectivos basically to intimidate people. Nicolás Maduro has made creepy reference to handing guns to civilian militia as well, with a "civil military plan." That can't mean anything good.

I feel like the opposition's main hope at this point is to increase the number of soft-liners within the government in order to make it follow the constitution. We already know there are fault lines. Those soft-liners have no love for the opposition (which, I would think, holds them back) but they value democracy. They see the devastation around them and when combined with large numbers of Venezuelans on the streets, they find it harder to stand behind Maduro. Some of these soft-liners are undoubtedly in the military as well, though how that plays out is unpredictable because it depends a lot on rank.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Trump and MS-13

In the 1980s President Ronald Reagan prioritized funding the civil war in El Salvador, which was extraordinarily violent and prompted large scale emigration. Many migrants went to California, especially Los Angeles, where over 30 years ago they formed gangs like MS-13 as a means of protecting themselves from existing gangs. Over time members of MS-13 became entrenched in their communities and spread out across the country. Prior to the civil war, there had not been a large migrant stream from El Salvador. This was a phenomenon created by U.S. foreign policy, specifically the Reagan administration.

This process began when Barack Obama entered his 20s. But, naturally, he is to blame.



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Monday, April 17, 2017

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451

I hadn't read Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (originally published in 1953) in many years. It's still so relevant for today. Not simply for the idea of book burning/banning, which of course is central to the story and is timeless, but for the idea of numbing oneself with entertainment. A major theme is how many people accepted the idea that thinking hard about difficult issues and dealing with complexity were overwhelming. Entertainment, which actually interacted with you through huge screens on the wall, made you feel good. By banning books the state was just making your life a lot easier.

Even going out for walks was unusual and people who did so were targeted, even for death. If you're out walking with only your own thoughts, you must be dangerous. Anytime you stopped being entertained, you might think. Children were therefore taken away right after birth, so they could be properly taught to be entertained and learn not to see more than one side of a story.

And, finally, professors are the main targets. Bradbury would fully understand the attacks on the humanities and on academia in general.

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North Korea Crisis is not Cuban Missile Crisis

Comparisons across time are never perfect but they can serve to give us a grip on current events. By the same token, inapt comparisons can make things more confusing. That is the case with comparing the U.S.-North Korea confrontation right now with the Cuban Missile Crisis, which The New York Times is pushing.

While all historical analogies are necessarily imprecise — for starters, President John F. Kennedy dealt with the Soviets and Fidel Castro in a perilous 13 days in 1962, while the roots of the Korean crisis go back a quarter-century — one parallel shines through. When national ambitions, personal ego and deadly weapons are all in the mix, the opportunities for miscalculation are many.

I don't see anything shining. The Cuban Missile Crisis had its roots in the Bay of Pigs, which JFK inherited and did not want. The North Korea situation now has its roots in Donald Trump's undiplomatic and unwise tweeting. JKF's ego/manliness was not particularly tied to the crisis--he felt he had to respond because in the Cold War context, he would get hammered at home and, he felt, the Soviets would feel emboldened.

Timing is therefore a lot different. Trump could've achieved a lot more by staying quiet and working with the Chinese. Instead, I get the impression that he's following some predetermined series of negotiation steps that worked when he built apartments in New Jersey or something. He actually intentionally sparked this crisis himself when he didn't need to. I can't imagine JFK wanting to do the same with Cuba, which he preferred not to hassle with.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved by skillful back-channel diplomacy. Since "skillful" does not apply to the current administration's diplomatic repertoire, we can only hope someone with sense is given the task of working with the North Koreans through the Chinese. And indeed, that is the other problem with the comparison--we don't have easy back-channel avenues for North Korea.

Instead, we have Mike Pence going to the DMZ and talking tough:

"We're going to abandon the failed policy of strategic patience. But we're going to redouble our efforts to bring diplomatic and economic pressure to bear on North Korea. Our hope is that we can resolve this issue peaceably," Pence said in an exclusive interview at the DMZ.

I have no idea what "this issue" is. There are myriad issues with North Korea and the U.S. cannot force any of them without going to war. With JFK, there was only one issue--remove the missiles. I doubt North Korea even knows what Trump wants. I am not sure Trump knows what Trump wants. That's really the problem.


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