Friday, December 15, 2017

Trump Complicates Latin America's Economic Outlook

The UN's Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean issued its preliminary report on the economic outlook for 2018, which is mostly positive (less positive if you're in a dictatorship).

But Trump injects some uncertainty into the situation. Increasing uncertainty is a strength of his.

In addition, the tax reform bill now moving through the legislature in the United States could ease the corporate tax burden and bolster capital flows to that country. In addition to the possible redistributive effects of that bill, the cuts in corporate tax rates and the repatriation of capital may not only have a direct effect on capital flows, but may also change the rules of the game in international taxation. This could trigger other reductions in corporate taxes (in what is known as a “race to the bottom”) that could have an impact on the tax systems of other countries, including those of the region (p. 96).
That bill is not 100% set but is extremely close. I had not thought about tax cut contagion but Latin American governments may well decide to chase the money.

The uncertainty surrounding the future trend in trade volumes also has to do with the growing protectionism being observed in some countries. The mounting support for anti-globalization political parties in some European countries and the vote in favour of Brexit in the United Kingdom in 2016 are just two examples. Meanwhile, the rhetoric used by the United States in the latest rounds of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) talks suggests that the dissolution of that treaty is a less remote possibility than it used to be, especially in view of that country’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) (p. 95).

This, of course, is an ongoing concern. Even Bernie Sanders is cheering on Donald Trump's effort to radically change NAFTA. Latin American leaders will continue to look outside the region for investment and trading deals.

As so often happens, Latin America is held hostage to intermestic policy, as U.S. domestic politics drives U.S. foreign policy. This puts a question mark on the 2018 outlook.


Thursday, December 14, 2017

Is Venezuela a Model for Cuba?

One mantra for years with Venezuela is that the Cubans control everything and so the country was moving in a Castro-esque direction. Reality, however, has shown the seemingly hapless Chavistas to be far more subtle and flexible than Fidel's model. Instead, what we may actually eventually see is Cuba learning from Venezuela.

Fidel learned from Guatemala and Chile that co-existence with the empire was impossible, that socialism couldn't be achieved through electoral democracy. But of course that was the Cold War. Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro never lived that experience in Venezuela. Instead, they had lived elections in Venezuela.

In Cuba, elections are funny things that I would joke about in class: Fidel figured that if you only claimed 98% or so of the vote, then that 2% was your veneer of democracy. You think we're so evil but we let 2% oppose us! There was no way the Castros were going to allow a real opposition to wander the country, talk freely, and the like.

Once Hugo Chávez died, oil prices dropped, and the weight of mismanagement and corruption all combined to destroy the economy and undermine confidence in the government, Maduro needed a new strategy for staying in power, but he couldn't use the Cuban model. In this era of (relative) democracy in the region, he needed a bigger fig leaf that Castroism could provide. So they kept having elections, but just carefully controlled who could participate. If the opposition elects a majority in the legislature, just ignore it and cite laws to do so. Then create your own "popular" body to replace it. Maybe you even learned a little gerrymandering from the United States. Now a large chunk of the opposition can no longer even participate in the 2018 presidential election because of their perfectly democratic decision not to participate in Sunday's local elections. Perfect!

All the while, you dialogue. You talk a lot about dialogue, and peace, and the wonders of working together for a unified, prosperous Venezuela. Foreigners hoping for some diplomatic glory sponsor and mediate this dialogue. It can drag on forever. This is a tremendous fig leaf that covers your enormous cojones.

The icing on the cake is the Trump administration, which does squeeze you economically on the one hand but gives you lots of political cover on the other. At least for now, Russia will help you cover the economic part and keep a sufficient number of people paid to keep moving forward. China is a little dicier but is still in the picture. But it's nice to have someone to rail against again because Obama knew much more what he was doing and he was hard to vilify. And now Trump apparently deems Venezuela an equal priority as North Korea and Iran. On this, at least, you can learn from Fidel, who played the U.S. like a fiddle.

Back to my original point, as Raúl Castro fades out, younger Cuban leaders will have to sort out how to move ahead. Over time, it wouldn't surprise me to see some sort of faux democracy that is primarily authoritarian. Venezuela, even more so than Russia, which is so much more heavy-handed, is developing a model to follow. You can have some measure of free speech, some kinds of free elections, and a vocal opposition, yet you can control all the levers and leave the world at a loss.

That model is working like a charm. For now at least. Worse models, like Zimbabwe's, lasted a hell of a long time. It's buying Chavistas time, though, and that's the best they can hope for at the moment. Cuba is watching too, and when there's political change there maybe watch for Venezuelans advising them. 


Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Malevolence or Incompetence? Trump in Honduras

With reason, much as been made of the State Department certifying that Honduras was complying with the U.S. requirement of fighting corruption and protecting human rights precisely as election fraud was occurring.

Several times now, I've argued that Trump administration responses to Latin America have appeared either to be malevolent or incompetent--it's like a game show where you hear a scenario and have to choose one. The malevolent option is that the administration wanted to signal its desire for Juan Orlando Hernández to win. But there is always the incompetent option. From the Houston Chronicle:

But two days after the election and in the midst of the protests, the U.S. State Department stunned just about everyone. It sent a document certifying that Honduras had complied with its rule of law and human rights requirements to obtain millions of dollars in U.S. aid.
 Democrats in Congress immediately assumed that President Donald Trump was showing support for Hernández, a conservative who has gained favor with the White House for cracking down on street gangs that have made the country one of the world's most violent.
 But a State Department spokeswoman told reporters the certification was simply sent when it had been completed, saying "This was just something that it was done when it was done. Okay?"
 Okay, we get it. If it wasn't sent to help Hernandez, then it was sent with no thought or knowledge about the delicate situation in Honduras and the effect it could have, which among other things was to add to the confusion.

I actually lean toward incompetence here. The State Department is stripped to the bone and managed by someone who is hostile to its operation. A deadline was coming up so a lower level official generated the statement. This just would not surprise me.

I can't rule out malevolence, and certainly the Honduran opposition is reading Trump administration actions closely and finding them in favor of JOH. Either way, the Trump administration is sending the wrong signals and the region is paying attention.


Friday, December 08, 2017

Ron Chernow's Grant

I greatly enjoyed Ron Chernow's Grant. I knew only the basics about him and the combination of strengths (esp. military genius and commitment to African American rights) and weaknesses (esp. misplaced trust and alcohol) make for good reading. I had not known what an abject failure he was when the civil war broke out (and that part of the book is much less interesting and therefore slower) nor the magnitude of his global image after he left the presidency. He died young, only 62, but that can happen when you smoke 20 cigars a day.

I am not that into military history but Chernow does a nice job of going through Grant's rapid rise through the ranks and the successful battlefield strategies that compelled Lincoln to trust him. The two developed a strong bond. Grant understood Robert E. Lee and outmaneuvered him time and again. Chernow brings out the emotion and stress he (and of course Lincoln as well) were under.

Reconstruction is heartbreaking to read, as Grant supported African Americans enjoying their rights and entering politics, which they did in large numbers. He sent troops to the South numerous times to counter brutal white violence, but his own party and the North in general tired of it, and after he left office whites quickly established apartheid.

Latin America note: Grant fought in the Mexican War and fell in love with the country, even going back later. Chernow is clearly a sympathetic biographer but Grant's own words suggest someone who tried to overcome racism and appreciate the people and culture.


Thursday, December 07, 2017

Latin American Response to Honduras

I write periodically about the lack of unity and cooperation in Latin America, which is detrimental to democracy in the region. In the case of Honduras, we see a partial exception that underlines how difficult unity is to achieve. The Mexican Foreign Ministry issued a statement on behalf of eight countries in support of the TSE's decision to do a recount.

Los gobiernos de Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, México, Paraguay, Perú y Uruguay manifiestan su apoyo a la decisión tomada por las altas autoridades del Tribunal Supremo Electoral de Honduras de proceder al recuento de la totalidad de las actas de votación interpeladas respecto de sus recientes elecciones presidenciales.

Concern about fraud and calls for a recount have come from elsewhere as well, but it seems ideology still gets in the way. Evo Morales might agree with the statement but blames the U.S. Same goes with Nicolás Maduro. The statement lauds the OAS, which they would not want to do. On the other side of the ideological spectrum, where is Brazil? The powerhouse is conspicuous by its absence.


Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Latin American Elections Are Boring

I agree with a lot of Jorge Castañeda's op-ed in the New York Times about where Latin America is headed as a series of presidential elections are coming up. We hear a lot of concern about democracy breaking down but it's premature:

Fortunately, Latin American democracy is becoming monotonously normal and resistant to great upheavals. If there is a common thread underlying this sequence of presidential elections, it may reside in a healthy novelty: the humdrum nature of most of the possible outcomes. This is good news for the region.

I've used the word "boring" to describe elections in Argentina, Ecuador, and Peru that were supposed to be ideological battlegrounds that could convulse the region. Or at least they were portrayed that way. Remember back when Ollanta Humala was going to be the next Hugo Chávez and Peru would turn into the Soviet Union if he won?

This doesn't minimize or ignore the crisis in Honduras or the populist temptations in Brazil or Mexico. But in a regional and historical perspective, Latin America is not falling apart. Coups aren't gone but they're far less of a threat now than any other time in Latin American history. Civil wars are ending, not starting. I think of Ecuador, which was so coup prone, and now the elections are interesting politically but also boring in a good way.


Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Honduran Cobras Don't Want to Bite

The Honduran special forces group Cobras, which is often cited as "US funded forces attacking people" will not in fact attack anyone. They say they are "not machines or robots" and "before police, we are human beings," and they don't want to be part of killing people (or to be killed) for the sake of this election controversy.

They also make clear they are not taking sides. Instead, they just do not want to be part of domestic repression. They call on the police to do the same. Some police had already been on strike because of not getting paid.

This is groundbreaking stuff. My first thought is that they are indeed taking sides because the government is (presumably, since the president is Commander-in-Chief in Honduras) ordering them and they are saying no. On top of that Salvador Nasralla had called on the army to rebel. But at the same time, they are not calling for one or the other candidate to win, or telling Juan Orlando Hernández that they no longer serve him. Update: I hadn't seen the letter itself, which is actually much more directly aimed at the government.

Where does that go? The Venezuelan armed forces became increasingly resentful at being used to repress their own people, which then politicized them. What starts as "we don't repress" can eventually become "we don't support this government because it represses." Yet the contexts are different--JOH had solid approval ratings earlier this year and is not drastically changing economic policy. In short, we should not jump to too many conclusions. For the armed forces as a whole to shift course would be unprecedented.

It is also a reminder that using "US backed" or "US funded" as an automatic indication of brutality is simplistic because it robs groups of their agency. They are not simple puppets with no brains, which is generally the implication. Puppets tend to be puppets until they're not (remember all the analyses when Juan Manuel Santos became president in Colombia) and US funding alone does not tell us enough.


Monday, December 04, 2017

Fraud in Honduras

The Honduran Tribunal Supremo Electoral shows Juan Orlando Hernández winning 42.98%-41.39% over Salvador Nasralla with 99.96% of votes counted. It is clear that the election was marked by significant fraud. Nasralla had been ahead, then the TSE suddenly stopped issuing results, which days later began trickling in and drastically changed the outcome. I sense that the fraud strategy was incompetent.

At this point there are numerous problems that must be addressed before a winner is announced.

The opposition is questioning ballots from an additional 5,200 polling places, almost 30 percent of the total, and has asked for a recount from three rural departments where turnout was about 20 percent higher than the average in the rest of the country. 
The monitoring group from the Organization of American States said Sunday that the complaints over those 5,200 polling places should be considered.

The problem is that there is too little international pressure to do so. Yes, the OAS monitoring group supports this, but Luis Almagro has only done a few bland retweets. He talked nonstop about Venezuela and needs to come out more strongly about Honduras. The Trump administration remains almost completely silent. With all the noise that both made about Venezuela, the charge of hypocrisy is easy to make.

Meanwhile, the TSE agreed to recount far fewer. No surprise there--recount a few, claim forever that "a recount" was completed, and give JOH his re-election. The TSE is discredited at this point. There is no defense for the delays.

Sadly, the most likely outcome will be more violence and more distrust. It doesn't help that Nasralla calls for military insurrection:

“I call on all members of the armed forces to rebel against your bosses,” Nasralla told a cheering throng of supporters who booed nearby troops. “You all over there, you shouldn’t be there, you should be part of the people.”

The army isn't going to rebel* but this will certainly provide more rationale for repression. Without international pressure, Honduras will continue the political disintegration that began with the 2009 coup.

* Update: Boz notes that I say this with too much certainty. This is true. The army has traditionally been strongly connected with elites, who do not want Zelaya near the presidency. If the army does indeed rebel, then we're in brand new territory.


Sunday, December 03, 2017

AMLO and Amnesty

Andrés Manuel López Obrador said he would consider an amnesty for narcos. On social media I immediately saw a lot of mocking his political acumen. I am not so sure. This might not be so dumb politically.

1. The general idea is not so new in Mexico. Vicente Fox has said the drug war is useless and he is on the other side of political spectrum. Therefore the idea of such a trial balloon is not so crazy. Mexicans say drug-related violence is partly why they disapprove of Enrique Peña Nieto.

2. The general idea is not so new in the region either. El Salvador experimented with a truce, which is obviously different but falls under the same category of "trying something other than the current failing policy." So it's not unprecedented (you could perhaps even make a comparison to the concessions Colombia made to the FARC).

3. Perhaps even more importantly, Donald Trump will eventually attack him hard on this issue, which will be great for AMLO. If I were AMLO, I would look to push Trump's buttons as much as possible, which will inevitably lead to disparaging of Mexico and Mexicans. AMLO is in great shape if he becomes the defender of Mexican nationalism.


Friday, December 01, 2017

Trump Policy Toward Honduras

The Trump administration has been very quiet about the Honduran election. We've got one quick mention by the State Department spokesperson and that appears to be it. This screenshot from State's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs says it all.

There are two main possible reasons for this. First, the Trump administration wants Juan Orlando Hernández to win so is intentionally ignoring the clear signs of electoral fraud. Because of Salvador Nasralla's alliance with José Manuel Zelaya, there are wild charges of another Hugo Chávez coming. This is an administration that revels in wild charges and there are plenty of people who actually believe this. John Kelly really likes JOH and wild charges.

Second, Trump does not care at all (even if Kelly tries to get his attention) and Rex Tillerson is too incompetent/distracted to bother doing so or even to delegate that duty to his Assistant Secretary. Sorry, I mean his Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary because Trump has not cared enough to nominate an Assistant Secretary. Oh wait, there is no Ambassador to Honduras either. Oops.

So there you have it. Malevolence or incompetence. Take your pick.

I understand that many of you will say, "It's better that the Trump administration do nothing because realistically it would likely just screw this up even more." I lean heavily that direction myself but I do wish we had a government that would call for regional pressure to push for a recount or some other measures to counter fraud. I know that will not happen.


Thursday, November 30, 2017

Honduras Election Mess

On Monday, the Honduran Supreme Electoral Tribunal put Salvador Nasralla up 45.17%-40.21% over Juan Orlando Hernández. Then it stalled out and rumors flew of machinations to get Hernández the votes he needed.

It started moving again yesterday, and then when I awoke this morning, ta da! Hernández is winning 42.48%-41.7%.

This shift came right after the two candidates signed an agreement with the OAS to recognize the results, but then Nasralla basically said he would not accept all the results that were not proven. Nasralla's last tweet was from the middle of the night, where he called on his supporters to take (peacefully) to the streets.

Final results are expected by the end of today. If Nasralla loses, this will end very badly.

Meanwhile, Hernández calls for respecting the results and tweets about how great things will be. But this tweet from yesterday is probably not the best image to be transmitting to the world right now.

Update (11:35 am). JOH lead is now 43.54%-41.69% with 89.16% counted.

Update (2:42 pm). JOH lead narrows to 42.74%-41.55% with 91.09% counted.

Update (4:34 pm) JOH lead widens to 42.85%-41.48% with 92.02% counted.

Update (7:52 pm) JOH lead widens to 42.92%-41.43% with 92.63% counted.

Update (6:06 am) JOH lead stays almost identical at 42.92%-41.42% with 94.31% counted.


Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Colombia Ambassador Debacle

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's efforts to lay waste to diplomats has been well-documented. As a result, it should be good news when the Trump administration nominates a seasoned career diplomat--Joseph MacManus--to an important post, namely the Ambassador to Colombia. But Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Mike Lee are unhappy with the choice because he worked in the State Department before.

Lee writes explicitly that he does not want anyone who served in the State Department under the Obama administration to be in an important post. It doesn't even matter whether you also served prior to Obama. Rubio brings Benghazi (of course!) into it, and MacManus is transformed into a "Clinton aide," thus erasing his entire career.

Ambassadorial nominations have always generated weird political debates, but this one takes it a step further. It's not uncommon for appointees with political backgrounds to be grilled or even rejected (like Sen. Jesse Helms blocking Robert Pastor for his role in the Panama Canal negotiations) for partisan reasons. But it's new and uniquely stupid to oppose nominations simply for having worked in the State Department.


Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Bolivian Democracy

Santiago Anria has a post at The Monkey Cage on the state of Bolivian democracy. Short take is that Evo Morales' efforts to stay in power damage democracy but it's not going the same route as Venezuela, as is sometimes alleged.

Two things occurred to me as I read it. First, he makes the point that the opposition used to be harsh critics of the constitution and now they are the only defender. This is just like Venezuela, where Chavistas rejected Chávez's own constitution when its democratic elements no longer were acceptable to them, while the opposition called for it to be respected. Definitely not a good sign.

Second, he doesn't mention the military, which has been the bane of democracy in Bolivian history. This shows how well Morales has managed the military politically--Bolivian politics are traditionally coup-prone yet now it is well in the background. That deserves more study and is central to Morales' ability to remain in office into the future.


Monday, November 27, 2017

Honduras Election

We're still waiting on the final official results of the Honduran presidential election, which includes 57% of voters at this point. Here is the current tally from the TSE website, which has Salvador Nasralla in the lead.

With calls of fraud, strong personalities, corruption, hypocrisy, rumors of military action, general uneasiness, and both sides trying to claim victory already, Honduran democracy--already weak and fragile--takes a major hit no matter the outcome.

Of course, the 2009 coup gets mentioned frequently but we also need to think about the broader point that coups have deep and long impacts. Eight years later, Honduras has still not recovered. People who think a Venezuelan coup would work should keep this in mind.

Back in 2013, Patricia Otero-Felipe published an analysis in Electoral Studies about the 2013 general election and concluded with this:

Honduras' political forces have the opportunity to build a common front and undertake policy and institutional reforms.

There was no common front and the only reforms involved efforts to stay in power longer. I think it will be hard to write an optimistic analysis after all the dust settles.

Read more:

See Boz on how tense this all is.

See Mike Allison Juan Orlando Hernández's creeping authoritarianism.

CJ Wade says Hernández is full of BS.

RAJ is constantly updating results.


Saturday, November 25, 2017

Separatism in Latin America

The Bello column in The Economist has an article on the lack of separatism in Latin America. It notes various potential reasons we're not seeing Catalonia in Latin America, and kudos for referring to a Latin American political scientist for evidence:

For regional grievances to become separatist movements requires some specific conditions, as Alberto Vergara, a political scientist at the University of the Pacific in Lima, has noted in a comparative study of Peru and Bolivia. These include a powerful regional political elite, access to economic resources and foreign trade, and a paramount city that rivals the national capital. These applied to the Bolivian movement centred on Santa Cruz. And they apply in Catalonia.

Vergara published his book in Spanish, and it struck me that I couldn't think of one in English, even though it's a great topic. I suppose in general people like studying something more than the absence of something, perhaps not unlike the ongoing debate about publishing null results. Yet it's notable that although Latin America has dealt with devastating civil war, it has largely avoided the problem of separatism despite the many linguistic, nationalist, and geographical divides within it.


Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Development of Jimmy Carter's Latin America Policy

The State Department just published a new Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) volume on South America from 1977-1980. Especially when viewed from today, where the Secretary of State is happily destroying our ability to conduct diplomacy, it shows how thoughtful deliberation can work.

The new administration (Cyrus Vance, Robert Pastor, and Zbigniew Brzezinski in particular) talk about the big picture ("do we have or do we need a special policy toward Latin America?") and nuts and bolts ("exactly what attitude should we have toward military governments"?). They covered all ground. Of particular note is the conclusion that a single "Latin America policy" wasn't necessarily needed or desired. That's also instructive for today.

Of course, the administration's emphasis on human rights was part of that overall discussion.

When Assistant Secretary of State Terence Todman talked to Jorge Videla, here is the response he got:

Videla said that he understood our human rights position and did not argue with its importance, but that Argentina just could not meet the highest standards until it wins the war against terrorism. Videla asked for our understanding of Argentina’s difficulties (p. 54).

Later the dictatorship had this to say:

The GOA does not believe the OAS should be a forum for accusations against one or another member. All countries have their problems. We must not let those problems interfere and impede pursuit of the primary objectives. It is neither fair nor just that Argentina should be the target on human rights issues in the OAS (p. 380).
After getting the VIP treatment from Henry Kissinger before, they weren't so happy.


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

What Matters About the Chilean Election

Javier Sajuria has a nice post at The Monkey Cage on the Chilean election. There are major structural changes underway in Chile, in part unleashed by electoral reform. Most attention has been on the presidential race, but the Chilean legislature is younger, more female, and less experienced with governing.

Another issue that I have not seen addressed is whether we are potentially seeing a return to Chile's traditional three-thirds political system. For a good chunk of the 20th century, Chile had a left, center, and right. The center, which eventually was represented by the Christian Democratic Party, was the anchor. When it shifted away from the center, that opened the door to the 1973 coup. The binomial system put in place by the dictatorship squashed that system and pushed a two-party system.

Although these results don't matter for the outcome of the presidential race, they set limits on what the next president can do. The three-thirds system was centrifugal and plagued by the problem of the executive coming in with grand plans that could not be fulfilled given the composition of the legislature.

In his post at Global Americans, Lucas Perelló starts getting at this a bit.

The biggest challenge for both candidates, however, is to keep one eye on winning the presidency and another eye on forming the necessary alliances to get legislation passed in Congress. Whoever wins the run-off and becomes president of Chile will face a deadlocked Congress.

This is what really matters about the election. Whoever is elected will have to reduce expectations because the legislature will be more unwieldy than ever. If expectations of change (in any direction) are too strong, then there will be backlash.


Sunday, November 19, 2017

Don't Celebrate Coups

Last week I expressed skepticism at the idea of a "democratizing coup" in Venezuela. Now Argentine political scientist Rut Diamint does the same, just more blistering, as she notes Latin American lessons for the coup in Zimbabwe.

I would dispute that Zimbabwe’s political rupture will usher in an era of order and progress. And I think many Latin Americans would agree with me. I wish Zimbabweans luck, but based on my country’s past, I fear for their future.

I really got the impression that she was reading optimistic views and it just ticked her off.

World history is full of atrocities committed in the name of law and order. The international community should be concerned about what’s happening in Zimbabwe right now. I’m an Argentinean scholar of Latin American militarization, and I can attest that so-called “democratizing coups” are largely fiction.

She does not get into the question of whether the military decides to stay in power or not, which matters quite a lot. But to her point, either way the military will remain a powerful political actor, hovering over everything, which itself is detrimental to democracy.

I think the parallels between Venezuela and Zimbabwe mean that we'll see comparisons between the two. In neither case is it a good idea to celebrate a military coup.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Latin America Liked Obama, Trump Not So Much

Latinobarómetro released a report on the Trump era. What you see is that the general Latin American view of the United States has not changed all that much since the Obama administration. Indeed, most of the questions are just general "United States" and are fairly stable. When you start asking about Trump specifically, then you see a change.

So here is the view of Donald Trump in his first year:

And here is the view of Barack Obama in his first year.

To sum up, Trump's most favorable rating (in Paraguay!) is still substantially lower than Obama's worst rating (Bolivia).

The report claims a correlation between views of the U.S. president and views of the U.S. more generally, but I don't see that. What I see instead is the optimistic view that, at least for the time being, Latin Americans do not consider Trump to be representative of the United States and so place more blame squarely on him personally rather than on the country. We can only hope that continues.


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Democratic Coup in Venezuela?

Law Professor Ozan Varol raises the possibility of a coup in Venezuela that potentially leads to democracy in a post at The Monkey Cage. I like these kinds of arguments because they're counterintuitive and challenge conventional wisdom. Unfortunately he does not tell us what factors would make it more versus less democratic, as the latter is much more likely. He also distinguishes between a "full-blown" vs. a "haphazard" coup, though it's not clear what these mean.

Finally, he notes the following:

As I demonstrate in my book, other countries as diverse as Portugal, Mali, Colombia, Burkina Faso, Britain, Guinea-Bissau, Guatemala, Peru and the United States have all undergone democratization after their military forces turned their arms against their authoritarian governments.

Hmm. What was the coup attempt in the United States? I assume he means the civil war, but that's not a coup. And I don't know what Guatemalan coup he refers to because the last coup was 1954 and it led to authoritarian rule. If you want to include self-coups, then I guess you count the 1993 case in Guatemala but that's a whole different context since a) it involved strengthening the executive rather than overthrowing it; and b) it failed. So I'm not feeling too convinced at this point.

Update: I think the Guatemala case must be 1944.


Dialogue in Venezuela

The Venezuelan opposition has postponed dialogue with the government until foreign ministers are included, which appears to be a scheduling issue.

The opposition’s principal demand is for free and fair conditions for the 2018 presidential election. 
It also wants freedom for jailed activists, autonomy for the opposition-led Congress, and a foreign humanitarian aid corridor to help alleviate Venezuela’s unprecedented economic crisis. 
Maduro accuses his opponents of conspiring with the United States and a right-wing international campaign to oust his socialist government via a coup. The government is seeking guarantees against violence and recognition of the pro-Maduro Constituent Assembly that has overridden Congress.

Should the opposition trade recognition of the Constituent Assembly for a 2018 presidential election that is fully overseen by international observers? I think the observers--which the government has rejected before--are necessary for anyone to believe in the elections at all (as I noted on Monday, this is one big difference from the Chilean case).

The Constituent Assembly is clearly illegitimate so this is a bitter pill. But if you've decided to engage in dialogue, then you've resigned yourself to bitter pills in order to achieve a main objective. If you can figure out a way to ensure free and fair elections and also, I should add, not some crazy gerrymandered structure, then maybe you go for broke and see if you can win. Whether or not free elections are possible is an empirical question that will be up to the opposition to sort out. If the answer is "no," then the opposition can say it tried everything and the government was intransigent.


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Venezuela is in Default

Standard & Poor's has declared Venezuela in "selective default"* as it failed to pay $200 million that was due after a 30 day grace period. Bizarrely, the government had announced a big meeting of bondholders, then gave them an Honor Guard salute, chocolate, and no other news. The government claims it is in the process of restructuring debt but that is not actually happening (the parallel to Donald Trump is eery in this regard).

S&P says Venezuela is also overdue on four other bond payments worth a total of $420m but that the grace period has not yet expired on those payments. 
Venezuela's total external debt, which also includes loans from countries like Russia and China, is thought to be as much as $140bn.

So what now? Venezuela is low on reserves, oil output is down, inflation could get up to 2,300% by the end of the year, and raising cash is going to be hard even if Russia (and perhaps China, which has always seemed more reticent) remains generous. The government is literally running out of money. At some point bondholders are going to demand their money and take the government to court.

It may well be that as long as the hardcore Chavistas, including in the military, can generate enough oil revenue to keep themselves above water, they will simply ignore everything else, which will include immiseration. As we see with Zimbabwe, this strategy can actually work for a surprisingly long time.

* Selective default:

SD and D - An obligor rated ‘SD’ (Selective Default) or ‘D’ has failed to pay one or more of its financial obligations (rated or unrated) when it came due. A ‘D’ rating is assigned when Standard & Poor’s believes that the default will be a general default and that the obligor will fail to pay all or substantially all of its obligations as they come due. An ‘SD’ rating is assigned when Standard & Poor’s believes that the obligor has selectively defaulted on a specific issue or class of obligations but it will continue to meet its payment obligations on other issues or classes of obligations in a timely manner.


Monday, November 13, 2017

Possible Chilean Advice to Venezuelan Opposition

Tim Padgett has interesting advice for the Venezuelan opposition, using the Chilean opposition to the Pinochet government as a model, as they successfully won a referendum:

1, Grow up and unify
2. Take part in the process - even if the process stinks
3. Don't lash out at the regime's supporters - reach out
4. Reach out harder and smarter - abroad

The unity part is clear as day, and it is worth remembering how bitter the Chilean Socialist Party was for many years. It went from being to the left of the Communist Party during Allende's government to being the voice of moderation in the late 1980s. Socialists were the most successful at talking to military officers in the government. Change of heart was central to getting the "no" vote out. Ultimately the Communists chose not to participate, thus leading to their exclusion from the winning coalition for many years.

For me, the second point is the trickiest. The Pinochet government stacked the deck against the opposition (air time, harassment, and the like) but the electoral process was actually pretty fair. The critical difference is that Pinochet thought he was going to win so did not feel the need to cheat. When it was clear he wouldn't, his own junta pushed back against his desire to overturn it. Pinochet was in a position of strength so could ride out the loss.

The situation is quite different in Venezuela. The government is weak and unpopular, and as a result is clearly tampering with the elections. Maduro and others cannot (or at least feel they cannot) survive a change of government so will hang on desperately as long as possible. This makes participation in elections more complex. Doing so demonstrates commitment to a peaceful solution but almost certainly will not lead to success.


Friday, November 10, 2017

Podcast Episode 43: Corporatism & Democratization in Mexico

In Episode 43 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with Ana Isabel López García, who is is Assistant Professor of Public Administration at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana and Visiting Research Fellow, German Institute of Global Affairs and Area Studies. She does research on Latin American democratization and political institutions. She recently published an article on corporatist organizations and political parties in Mexico in The Latin Americanist. So our topic is corporatism and democratization in Mexico.


Trump Losing Influence in Latin America

Chris Sabatini and William Naylor have a piece in Foreign Affairs about how the Trump administration seems dedicated to losing influence in Latin America.

When I was in Buenos Aires recently for a conference, I attended a panel on Trump and Latin America. The Latin American view was essentially the same. One panelist expressed puzzlement that Trump was pulling out of agreements (like the TPP) that in many ways were specifically intended to increase U.S. influence at the expense of China. Others mentioned how even after 10 months in office, it was unclear what, if any, goals Trump has in Latin America. Further, with the exception of Venezuela, South America seems barely to exist for Trump.

For years, I've gone against the current of people arguing that the U.S. was losing influence in Latin America. But I am changing my mind:

With the arrival of President Donald Trump, however, the United States’ relations with its southern neighbors have reached a new low. The problem is no longer one of neglect, but of malice, ad hoc policy responses, and blatant disinterest. 

Again, I don't actually agree there was as much neglect before as Chris and others claim, but the ad hoc and malice part is indeed true now. So much of the policy seems to be xenophobia for the sake of appeasing his xenophobic base.


Thursday, November 09, 2017

Nicaragua Loses TPS, Just Shrugs

Mike Allison writes about how Temporary Protected Status has ended for Nicaraguans, roughly 5,000 of them. It seems the Nicaraguan government did nothing to try and lobby otherwise, unlike its Salvadoran and Honduran counterparts. That surprises me.

A quick scan of Nicaraguan newspapers shows that the issue is not necessarily on the front page anymore. Further, Vice President Rosario Murillo said (whined?) that no Nicaraguan had yet come to a Nicaraguan consulate for help. Further, the government really has no idea where anyone is:

El Gobierno de Nicaragua sostuvo que hasta ahora no cuenta con información oficial sobre la situación de los ciudadanos nicaragüenses. 
De acuerdo con Murillo, es posible que los nicaragüenses en Estados ya tengan una situación migratoria diferente, hayan regresado a Nicaragua o estén en otro país.

The Trump administration itself noted that the decision was made easier because Daniel Ortega never asked otherwise.

También destacó que el Gobierno del presidente nicaragüense, Daniel Ortega, no solicitó a Estados Unidos una extensión de dicho programa.

In short, Daniel Ortega decided he didn't care about those 5,000 families, perhaps because asking for an extension was an implicit recognition that his country was not able to absorb them and he did not want to claim that.


Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Oil Embargo Against Venezuela

Mauricio Macri (who is currently in New York) called on Donald Trump to impose a full embargo on Venezuelan exports to the United States. And there's more: he says it would have broad support across Latin America.

“I think we should go to a full oil embargo,” Mr Macri said. “Things have gotten worse and worse. Now, it’s really a painful situation. Poverty is going up every day, sanitary conditions are getting worse every day.” 
The Argentine president is the first Latin American leader to openly advocate such as tough step. But Mr Macri, a centre-right politician who has succeeded in transforming Argentina from an international pariah to one of Latin America’s emerging starlets, said there would be “broad support” across the region for such a draconian measure, despite the hardship it would entail. 
“We have been talking about this many times with many people over the past month,” he told the FT.

Meanwhile, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) did the same in a letter to the Treasury Secretary:

I urge the Department to continue targeting Venezuela's state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), and consider banning the import of Venezuelan crude to the United States until constitutional order has been restored in Venezuela.

There's a lot going on here. Here are some key points to keep in mind.

First, this will do serious damage to the U.S. economy (though not as much to Florida and not at all to Argentina!). Gas prices will shoot up and oil-related jobs will evaporate. Self-inflicted wounds are the worst kind.

Second, I do not believe this would have broad support around Latin America. In fact, it is exactly the kind of unilateral policy that isolated the U.S. from the region with regard to Cuba. To repeat, the embargo has not isolated Cuba, nor will it isolate Venezuela unless the sanctions are multilateral. That would mean no Latin American country buys the oil--I didn't hear Macri saying anything about Argentina's role. It is a bad idea for the U.S. to engage in unilateral sanctions like this.

Third, it will greatly strengthen Russia's and China's position with Venezuela, just as the Cuba embargo accelerated and deepened Cuba's dependence on the Soviet Union. Again, a self-inflicted wound. (Update: Russia is right in there helping Venezuela ease its debt burden).

I tend to doubt that Trump cares enough about Venezuela to accept the risks, assuming he fully understands them. He would likely face an intense (even bigly) backlash at a time when his approval ratings are already terrible.


Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Maduro's Restructuring Plan

An article at CNBC quotes risk consultants about Nicolás Maduro's announcement of debt restructuring and concludes that this is a political gambit to make himself look stronger for the October 2018 presidential election.

I don't really see this. Maduro's main strategy has to kick cans down the road when faced with a crisis. This sort of announcement gives him and core Chavistas breathing room to sort out their next move. What's notable is that we're not seeing any sort of Néstor Kirchner or Rafael Correa move, which is to give the middle finger to creditors and thereby win the adulation of nationalists. That sort of move would qualify as making himself look stronger, but in fact everyone knows he can't because he needs his creditors too badly.

Maduro is known for empty announcements (remember early Christmas? Oldie but goodie) and I tend to think this restructuring will be taken as such until it shows something more concrete. Certainly it will have no ripple effect that can last an entire year until the election. But by delaying as long as possible, the government can come up with ways of neutralizing (often by arrest) the opposition and carefully planning election fraud so that the outcome of the presidential election is not in doubt.


Monday, November 06, 2017

Review of Black Man in a White Coat

I read Dr. Damon Tweedy's Black Man in a White Coat. What a cool book. He's a doctor (in psychiatry) at Duke, where he also got his MD. It is a memoir about how he dealt with race in the 1990s as a student, such as being mistaken by a professor for a maintenance worker, and then later as a doctor. As you might guess, that experience burned in him. Yet he is so thoughtful, and used that to become more self-aware of his own biases. He would see poor white people with Confederate flags and immediately make assumptions about them, even ticking off his assumptions, then gradually came to see they were inaccurate.

In that sense he is really honest. In particular he dissects his own failings, not wallowing, but rather understanding. He once had unprotected sex and knows he cannot judge those who got pregnant because he just got luckier. It's all about being aware of yourself so that you are less likely to automatically judge other people. Although he is quite apolitical, he also has a lot to say about how the poor--regardless of race--are largely excluded from health care. There he also realized he made assumptions that people who didn't have health care must not work, but at clinics he found so many working full time who still couldn't afford it, or barely could. There's a lot to ponder in here.


Latin America in Global IR

I've been in Buenos Aires at a conference hosted by Flacso Argentina on Latin America in Global International Relations. A lot of the ideas talked about here will work their way into this blog and a larger project I'm starting on Latin American autonomy in US-Latin American relations.

One in particular is the question of connecting IR scholars in the US to those in Latin America. Right now that relationship is almost entirely one way--Latin American scholars have used theories developed in the US and adapted them in various ways, but this work does not make its way back to be cited in US-based articles. I made the case that US scholars needed to start reading Latin American stuff more (and that includes me). From a variety of Latin Americans however, I got pushback. That's not realistic, they told me, because of the language barrier. Instead, we need to publish in English and get it out there.

Yet even if they are published, will US scholars take them seriously when they come from journals they've never heard of that may not have an impact factor? Or if they're qualitative? Those who study Latin America will, but others likely won't, unless I'm being overly pessimistic.


Monday, October 30, 2017

Commodities Dominate Latin American Exports

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean has a new report that is a "glass half-full/half-empty" type of thing. The value of Latin American exports increased 10% in 2017 but it was based almost entirely on commodities. Processed goods and technology seriously lag behind.

The regional export basket is dominated by basic products such as raw cane sugar, coffee (not roasted or decaffeinated), soybeans, soymeal, maize and frozen beef. In contrast, the region shows a poor export performance in processed products. 
According to ECLAC, the current high concentration in raw materials imposes the urgent challenge of “decommoditizing” the export basket, which is also true of other sectors related to natural resources. 

This has been a policy suggestion for about 60-70 years. Mexico and Brazil have shown some success but too little has changed.

Also of interest, and certainly no surprise, is that trade with China and the rest of Asia is growing more rapidly than anywhere else.

the recovery in regional exports in 2017 will be led by shipments to China and the rest of Asia (23% and 17% value increase, respectively) while exports to the United States and within the region will expand at a rate near the average (9% and 10%, respectively). Meanwhile, sales to the European Union will be less dynamic (with a 6% increase).

China is establishing a relationship whereby it exports manufactured goods and imports raw materials. It has been even more active in pursuing such ties after Donald Trump's election, and before that had been focusing on increasing the import of food from Latin America.


Saturday, October 28, 2017

Not So New Cuba Documents

The release of JFK declassified documents has included a few related to Cuba, which have been getting some attention. As I skimmed through them, however, they just seemed familiar. So familiar, in fact, that I was sure I had shown one of them in my class last semester.

For example, one of the documents is particularly disgusting, casually (and sometimes jokingly) referring to killing large numbers of innocent people. The following quote is from page 16 of that document:

"We could sink a boatload of Cubans en route to Florida (real or simulated). We could foster attempts on lives of Cubans in the United States, even to the extent of wounding in instances to be widely publicised."

I don't know why this is the case. In any event, it's not a bad thing to have everyone reminded of the background of U.S.-Cuba policy, or the repellent nature of so much of JFK's foreign policy.


Friday, October 27, 2017

Crazy Cuban Cicadas

The Cuban government has issued a rebuttal of U.S. charges about the infamous "sonic attack." This situation had already become weirder before, and now this is just piling on. The first Cuban argument was that this was illegal so couldn't possibly have taken place in Cuba, which frankly is not the most convincing logic.

Then it gets better:

“It’s the same bandwidth and it’s audibly very similar,” said Lt. Col. Juan Carlos Molina, a telecommunications specialist with the Interior Ministry. “We compared the spectrums of the sounds and evidently this common sound is very similar to the sound of a cicada.” 
The program’s narrator said that unnamed “North American researchers” had found that some cicada and cricket noises could be louder than 90-95 decibels, enough to produce hearing loss, irritation and hypertension in situations of prolonged exposure.

This sounds like a 1950s B-Movie.


Thursday, October 26, 2017

Lessons About Chavismo

Steve Ellner has an article in Monthly Review outlining his ideas about the lessons of the Bolivarian Revolution. It's worth looking at largely to see exactly how Venezuela gets framed from the left. Two things stand out for me.

First, he skates around but does not directly address the tension between "direct democracy" (which is intended to replace representative democracy) and protection of civil liberties. More specifically, does the opposition deserve any rights? He does not say so, but the answer appears to be no. He lauds Nicolás Maduro for playing "hardball" and putting people in prison, saying they deserve it and it is a positive sign of "perseverance." Working with non-Chavistas, in fact, is a bad idea:

if left unchecked, the government’s relationship with sectors of the bourgeoisie will solidify and continue to undermine the leadership’s socialist commitments.
He does not mention nullifying elections when the opposition win them, but clearly that would detract from the mission of socialism as well. Where non-Chavistas fit into Venezuela at all is unclear (is it simply a choice between jail and silent non-representation?).

Second, he notes problems with Chavismo but they tend to be on the margins. Tactical questions. He does not even like the idea of blaming both sides equally:

by censuring the government and opposition in equal terms, the ex-Chavistas obscure the vital fact that the latter is the aggressor, while the former has been relentlessly attacked, compelling it to take emergency measures, with damaging long-term effects.

The causes of the economic crisis are not addressed directly, but the multiple references to the opposition's hostility leaves little doubt where he leans.

All this made me wonder about calls for dialogue. If it is a bad idea to work with capitalists and to give the opposition representation, then what can dialogue ever achieve? By definition, such dialogue is supposed to entail compromise of some sort on both sides, but you cannot allow compromise if it undermines socialism. Where does that leave Venezuela?


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

TPS and Trump

Next month there will be 60,000 Hondurans in the United States who will face eventual deportation unless the Trump administration extends Temporary Protected Status for them. This extends back to Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and TPS has been extended 13 times. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez is lobbying on their behalf.

Honduras is not prepared to take people back, both officials and citizens say — and the lack of opportunity there might even prompt some to return to the U.S. illegally. Honduras’ economy is dominated by agriculture, and Honduran Minister of Agriculture Jacobo Paz said that despite government programs to improve agricultural practices, providing training to thousands of returning Hondurans will overtax the country’s abilities.

Does Donald Trump care? He extended TPS for Haitians, but John Kelly said that countries needed to start thinking about their citizens coming back. As far as I can tell, Honduras is just the second case in this hemisphere. El Salvador will come early in 2018. Clearly Trump's base wants immigrants gone but I have not heard him say anything about it.

TPS is a weird thing because clearly more than a decade is not "temporary" but Congress won't provide any more permanent path. Therefore it becomes a limbo, a permanent impermanence. Yet sending people back will likely be counterproductive. Honduras already is poor, underdeveloped, and plagued by organized crime. If you force tens of thousands back into it without any prospects, you're asking for trouble, and trouble in Central America always makes its way to the United States.


Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Pragmatism or Populism in Latin America?

Robert Muggah and Brian Winter argue in Foreign Policy that populism is poised to make a comeback in Latin America. I don't really agree, in large part because "populism" has ceased to mean anything very meaningful anymore in popular discourse (labeling Michelle Bachelet as part of this is problematic, for example). As I've argued before, what we're seeing is not necessarily radicalization or a move to populism, but rather anti-incumbent sentiment. I wrote this in July 2016 and I think it holds up:

What you're really seeing is the development of democratic rule in the region. Too many people have a tendency to see elections as the "death of the left/right" in some way, without taking the larger context in mind. As I've written over and over, Latin American voters are more pragmatic than we give them credit for, and will continue seeking solutions to the problems they face. If the left can't do it, they'll look to the right, and vice versa.

Will anti-incumbent arguments lead to radical populism? Sure, they can, but there is no reason to assume they are going to "set alarm bells ringing," as they argue. I get that the LAPOP data should concern us, but it could also be a blip so in my opinion it's premature to panic.

I don't mean to argue that nothing bad could happen. They note correctly how screwed up Brazil is, and how easily this could lead to radical candidates. But I am not sure how much the Brazilian case can be compared too fruitfully to other Latin American countries. In general, my instinct is to be wary of alarmism.


Monday, October 23, 2017

Academic Kindness

The New York Times Magazine has a lengthy story about Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist who did research on "power poses," where she argued that standing in a particular position made people feel more powerful. She did TED Talks and became well known for it. Then other researchers said they could not replicate her findings and she was attacked for it.

For me, the story was so much about academic kindness, or rather the lack thereof. Academics seem particularly prone to being mean, condescending, and heartless to each other. We judge everyone else constantly while jealously cultivating our own reputations. You don't have to step back very far to realize how stupid and petty it is. We take ourselves too seriously and cloak meanness in the mantle of "integrity." We're not being mean, we're just pointing out errors so that knowledge moves forward properly.

If someone does TED Talks or major media public appearances, then it gets worse. You get phrases like "media whore" (which, fortunately, I hear less and less) and questions about the person's academic prowess. People even often feel obligated to apologize a bit before saying they've been on TV or other media. They do so because there is a culture--now slowly but definitely changing--that it should be the role of think tanks or journalists, not us pure academics, to talk to the public.

The article does not mention sexism but you have to wonder about how bias, conscious or unconscious, also plays a role. In all, you have a situation where a professor becomes famous and gets attacked in large part because of that. This plays out in many, many other, less visible settings in universities everywhere (including Latin American, as I have occasionally learned).

The answer to all this is so simple that people can't seem to follow it. It's this: when you wake up every morning, tell yourself that on this day you won't be an asshole to your colleagues. That's it. If you have Ph.D. students, add that you will model not being an asshole to them as well. Just doing that would change academia quite a bit.


Friday, October 20, 2017

Evo Morales History Tweeting

Every so often I write a "still fighting the War of the Pacific" post (the first was almost exactly 10 years ago). The case grinds its way through the International Court of Justice, with Chileans (both right and left) arguing that Bolivia has no case for reclaiming territory.* Now Evo Morales is tweeting about it. It's not often that a president starts tweeting about a 1904 treaty.

He's referring to the 1904 Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which defined the border and gave Bolivia some access to the ocean through Chile. The Bolivians didn't and don't consider it too friendly or peaceful, so we have the president getting up in the morning and tweet ranting about it.

* In fact, Evo Morales recently called Michelle Bachelet a liar about it.


Thursday, October 19, 2017

Incentives for International Pressure in Venezuels

Jorge Castañeda has an op-ed on the importance of international pressure on Venezuela. It is better than most such analyses, which tend to show considerable optimism for a united front of international actors. He explains the importance of gathering the votes in the European Union for sanctions.

However, there is a major sticking point that he simply glosses over:

En algún momento, dejará de poder pagar el servicio de su deuda externa, sobre todo si los chinos y los rusos dejan de ayudarle.

If. If. If. Even more forcefully, Moises Rendon at the Center for Strategic & International Studies makes the following case:

When looking at resolving the Venezuelan crisis, we must consider China’s economic and geopolitical interests, along with Russia’s commercial and oil relationships and Cuba’s political assistance. China has given more than $62 billion in loans to Venezuela in the last 10 years, more than all the multilateral institutions combined. Though China might have a strategic interest in continuing to support an anti-U.S. government in the region, it would also benefit from a transition in Venezuela if a new government brings economic stability, the rule of law, and a respect for previous treaties and bilateral loans.
 Venezuelan engagement with Russia ranges from arm deals to visa reciprocity agreements and oil-production agreements. Russia will also play a role when restructuring Venezuela’s sovereign debt. Rosneft, the Russian oil company, owns 49 percent of CITGO, the Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) oil subsidiary based in the United States. Despite the fact that Russia doesn’t have the financial flexibility to keep the regime afloat, it plays an important role in the international arena, especially as part of the UN Security Council. Cuba, on the other hand, is the political mentor of the regime and Venezuela’s closest ally. Thousands of Cubans reside in Venezuela, either through medical assistance programs or military and intelligence efforts. Eliminating assistance to the Maduro regime from these three countries is key.

Yes, all three countries could figure out a way to deal with a change of government in Venezuela, but do any of the three have an incentive to push it? I just don't see it. Russia and Cuba in particular have a lot to lose politically if the opposition takes power, and Cuba has even more to lose financially. So why would they go along?


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Venezuelan Government is Stronger Than Ever

Your best guess right now is that the Venezuelan government is in a stronger position than ever. The Trump administration can impose sanctions, Luis Almagro can complain (and, incidentally, even the Venezuelan opposition is telling him to shut up), and the opposition can get protests going, but the regime won. And it won bigly.

The opposition is entirely in tatters, splintered and angry at itself. Some of the losing candidates talk of how the leadership paid no attention to local electoral realities. Running a relentlessly negative anti-Maduro campaign appeared not to resonate with Venezuelans, who wanted more from gubernatorial candidates. There is no opposition leadership. María Corina Machado talks of creating a new "Soy Venezuela" as if a new slogan will do the trick.

The opposition can protest, but everyone knows you can't keep that up forever and they have had no impact up to this point. It could use violence but that is a losing proposition both in PR and practical terms. There is every reason to believe the army and police are firmly behind the government. Fighting when you've just lost an election won't be a winning strategy. You could engage in dialogue but the government will run you in circles because it knows you don't have a firm constituency behind you. You've got no leverage anywhere. Mostly what you can do now is work on a clear, positive, coherent message that goes beyond insulting Maduro and convinces Venezuelans that you're not a bunch of out of touch elites who just want back in power.

With that, you look to the 2018 presidential election. You don't really have any other choice.


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Cuba and Israel

For the first time, a group of Israeli business leaders is making an official trip to Cuba to talk trade, with the approval (but not endorsement) of the Israeli government. I find this fascinating because not only are there no diplomatic ties between the two countries (Fidel Castro cut them) but the Castro regime has been blistering in its condemnation of Israel and glowing in its relations with Palestinians. Apparently President Obama's thaw inspired Israeli business leaders to push for their own.

It is worth nothing that last year at the annual United Nations vote against the Cuba embargo, Israel switched its traditional "no" vote to an abstain, as did the United States. That vote will be coming up again on November 1, and although I expect the U.S. to go back to "no," it may well be that Israel will not.

This also serves as a stark reminder about how President Trump's foreign policy is often out of step with just about everyone. Even Israel, which he was careful to cultivate, is moving away from the Cold War mentality on Cuba.


Monday, October 16, 2017

Venezuela's Contentious Elections

Venezuela held gubernatorial elections yesterday. As you might guess, there is plenty of controversy. Here is a good summary from Caracas Chronicles. Some thoughts:

First, the results showed an overwhelming number of wins for the government, which sharply contradicted pre-election polls. Such polls should always be viewed with caution, of course, but all things being equal the results should be regarded with suspicion because a) the election was originally postponed precisely because the government was concerned at how bad it would lose; and b) the country is in tatters and the government is not popular.

Second, new governors will be required to declare allegiance to the Constituent Assembly, which is essentially both legislature and constitution at the same time. I have to wonder how that's going to go because the assembly itself was created to circumvent the opposition-led legitimate legislature.

Third, there was debate in the opposition about whether to vote, but ultimately many people decided it was their right and they should exercise it. Make the government crack down, make it commit fraud, and the international community would respond. Nicaragua, Cuba, and Bolivia all jumped to congratulate the government. TeleSur tries to claim that Honduras did as well, but it's a letter from Mel Zelaya. The smaller OAS states with long ties to Hugo Chávz won't likely budge, so in Latin America it's hard to see this fostering much change.


Saturday, October 14, 2017

Losing Jobs to Mexico

Tremendous long-form article in the New York Times profiling a woman in her 40s in Indianapolis who loses her manufacturing job to Mexico. Not metaphorically, but literally--she and her co-workers are asked to train Mexicans. There's a lot here.

--She obviously loved Trump's message about jobs (he mentioned her factory in a tweet) but her support for him was skin deep and she did not bother voting. Clearly existing parties offer her nothing--she felt Democrats talked too much about safety nets instead of jobs. She was nervous when she heard Trump was considering ending the health care program that took care of her disabled granddaughter.

--She is gracious about the training, which is just a barbaric practice. The young Mexican man she trains seems genuinely not to know he is taking her job and that she was losing hers. He seemed stricken when he found out. The human element here is strong. She is not the stereotype of the racist working class and indeed even wants to travel to Mexico. A underlying message here is that workers have a lot in common. No, the article is not Marxist, but it's hard to miss the message about owners and workers.

--The reporter is subtle but blasts the modern business model that reward CEOs with millions as they fire people. It is entirely in the interest of executives to screw people. And they do.

--The broken families and domestic violence are clearly a drag, as they contribute to instability, to lack of education and therefore to fewer opportunities. But health care is front and center--bills eat her up quickly.

--In our consumer society, self-worth is derived from the product you produce and the consumer goods you consume.

--there is still a ray of hope at the end, which is her daughter getting a college scholarship. Higher education gets all kinds of criticism these days but it's still the best way to get and keep a job.


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Inflation in Venezuela

The IMF's World Economic Outlook has projections on inflation. See page 252 of the statistical abstract for the specific numbers. For the region as a whole, the 2018 projection is 3.6%, which shows how much inflation has been tamed and how high a priority governments give it regardless of their ideology.

And then, of course, there is Venezuela, which for 2018 may be looking at 2,530%, which is a catastrophe and about double the projected final amount for 2017. In the past, hyperinflation was a scourge in numerous countries, so it's particularly striking to see how badly it hits only one country. And that's why the government stopped releasing inflation data almost two years ago.


Mohsin Hamid's Exit West

Mohsin Hamid's Exit West is an intriguing and unusual novel. The two main characters, Nadia and Saeed, are two young people who live in an unnamed but certainly Middle Eastern country. They come together and when militants take over their city, they flee through one of the many magic doors popping up around the world, which take you somewhere else.

Migrants are doing this globally, which sets the stage for exploration of migrant experience, displacement, nativism, development of new nationalisms, and even personal relationships. If borders disappeared, what would happen?

It's beautifully written, a pleasure to read really. There is no plot per se--people are fleeing and trying to find new meaning in new places, but there is no narrative arc and definitely no effort to explain more broadly what new international responses there are and what the outcome is. That would be interesting to contemplate but it's not his point. Instead, he tries to sort out what happens to these two people.


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Latin Americans Feel Corruption is Worse

Transparency International just released a report on corruption in Latin America. The upshot is that people are reporting more instances of it. The report is based on surveys conducted in conjunction with Latinobarómetro.

62% thought corruption had worsened in the past 12 months. The worst by far (87%) is Venezuela, which should not surprise anyone. But the second worst (80%) is Chile. Even stranger, the best results came largely from Central America (Nicaragua is low!). One bright spot is that Guatemalans feel (or at least felt until the recent crisis) more positive about corruption being combated. It's just another reminder how important transnational efforts like CICIG are.

The worst offenders are police and politicians.

There is a lot of interesting (though sometimes sickening) nuance about where bribes are paid. That varies a lot. The fact that health care is a major area for bribes is particularly egregious. Health care is expensive and difficult enough even without paying bribes to access it.

The conclusions are the same as ever. Latin America needs better institutions. More transparent and impartial judicial system. Rinse, wash, repeat.


Monday, October 09, 2017

The Price of DACA

The Trump administration announced what it wants in return for not shutting down DACA.

Before agreeing to provide legal status for 800,000 young immigrants brought here illegally as children, Mr. Trump will insist on the construction of a wall across the southern border, the hiring of 10,000 immigration agents, tougher laws for those seeking asylum and denial of federal grants to “sanctuary cities,” officials said.
 The White House is also demanding the use of the E-Verify program by companies to keep illegal immigrants from getting jobs, an end to people bringing their extended family into the United States, and a hardening of the border against thousands of children fleeing violence in Central America. Such a move would shut down loopholes that encourage parents from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to send their children illegally into the United States, where many of them melt into American communities and become undocumented immigrants.
The president’s demands include new rules that say children are not considered “unaccompanied” at the border if they have a parent or guardian in the United States. They also propose treating children from Central America the same way they do children from Mexico, who can be repatriated more quickly, with fewer rights to hearings.
 Mr. Trump is also calling for a surge in resources to pay for 370 additional immigration judges, 1,000 government lawyers and more detention space so that children arriving at the border can be held, processed and quickly returned if they do not qualify to stay longer. 

So if this is meant to be a serious proposal rather than a way to claim Democrats are axing DACA by refusing to negotiate, it's a matter of what Democrats can swallow. Obviously, this is a hardliner wish list. Both from ethical and PR perspectives, trading one group of young people for another doesn't seem too likely. I will also be curious if any Republicans balk at what will be a high price tag--I don't know if anything cares about deficit spending anymore.

Trump is also a moving target so it's unclear what his bottom line might be. He had his dinner with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi on immigration and has mentioned how he feels compassion for DACA recipients, which made his base howl. So he has lurched back the other direction.

So we'll see what happens. The default prediction on passing immigration bills is failure, but in the past there hasn't been the looming deadline for so many people.


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