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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