Thursday, April 27, 2017

Venezuela Leaving the OAS

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

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

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

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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Podcast Episode 32: Lulu Garcia-Navarro

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


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Monday, April 24, 2017

Cuban TV and U.S. Soft Power

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

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

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Saturday, April 22, 2017

Cixin Liu's Death's End

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

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

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

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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Maduro and Trump Hate Legitimate Protests

From Nicolás Maduro:

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

From Donald Trump:



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

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

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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Venezuela Protests

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

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

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Trump and MS-13

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

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



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Monday, April 17, 2017

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451

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

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

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

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North Korea Crisis is not Cuban Missile Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Racism and Latinos in Baseball

More than ever, there is talk of Latino players "playing with emotion." More specifically, we hear how this has discomfited white players, especially older ones.

Some of it is just youth. Hall of Famer John Smoltz, for example, said, "I lean towards being professional." That itself was in response to Goose Gossage, who whined about Bryce Harper not having respect for baseball.

But most of it is focused on Latino players. José Bautista's bat flip in the 2015 playoffs is now iconic, and ignited a debate that continues.


via GIPHY


For U.S.-born white players, this was disrespectful. Exactly why a brief moment of exhilaration was disrespectful is never explained. It goes under the two categories of "unwritten rules" and "this is the way we've always done it." Under these rules, you show no emotion and then fight if someone slips up and lets a little emotion out. Now these immigrants are bringing their foreign ways.

The World Baseball Classic this year may have started a shift, because there was a lot of attention paid to the Latin American teams. But Smoltz again had to put his foot in his mouth:

But Smoltz's comment there, that "a lot of these guys are enjoying themselves, maybe they'll get it out of their system in about two weeks" -- that's pretty much the whole baseball thing right now, isn't it? The whole culture war in baseball, the "keep millennials engaged" business, the how-do-we-keep-the-game-relevant discussion … you can see the whole damned fight in that comment.

And so did Ian Kinsler:

“I hope kids watching the W.B.C. can watch the way we play the game and appreciate the way we play the game as opposed to the way Puerto Rico plays or the Dominican plays,” Kinsler said. “That’s not taking anything away from them. That just wasn’t the way we were raised. They were raised differently and to show emotion and passion when you play. We do show emotion; we do show passion. But we just do it in a different way.”

Somehow having fun is a problem. But the word "appreciate" is code for "professional." Showing emotion is unprofessional. White players do it right. Latino players do it wrong. But there are good signs. From former player Eric Karros:

“When I played (I was) very old school as far as you don’t show anybody up,” Karros said. “I was a non-emotional guy, very stoic. The irony now as a fan and as a player I like that bat flip. Now, if I were playing it wouldn’t be happening. But I think I’ve come to a point where I kinda like that sort of stuff and it adds some energy.

We can only hope this is spreading. I feel like it will, for demographic reasons if no other. The number of Latino players is increasing, as is the size of the overall Latino population. This could well the last gasp of uptight whiteness.

Let's stop worrying about bat flips and excitement. Anyhow, we all know the best way to put an end to it is to stop giving homers.

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Thursday, April 13, 2017

George Orwell's Why I Write

Why I Write is a nice little collection of four George Orwell essays, with the second (The Lion and the Unicorn) being the longest by far.

"Why I Write"

Orwell describes how not until his 30s (with the Spanish Civil War) did he finally understand why he needed to write: "against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it" (p. 8). And I love this quote:

So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information (p. 9).

"The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius"

This is a lengthy treatise on what is means to be British, with World War II has the backdrop. His appraisal of Neville Chamberlain could also work for Donald Trump: "His opponents professed to see in him a dark and wily schemer, plotting to sell England to Hitler, but it was far likelier that he was merely a stupid old man doing his best according to his very dim lights. It is difficult otherwise to explain the contradictions of his policy, his failure to grasp any of the courses that were open to him" (p. 28). Yet as critical as he is, he has complete disdain for whiny intellectuals who offer no constructive suggestions, largely because they know they'll never have the responsibility of actually making decisions.

He bogs down in his discussion of the superiority of socialism over capitalism, because writing during the war (the essay was published in 1940) he is focused on Germany's advantages and argues that capitalism is incompatible with building a war force. The U.S. has shown clearly that profit and war can go together perfectly, and indeed too perfectly.* Orwell was quite wrongly convinced that winning the war would open people's eyes to the benefits of a more planned economy. Thomas Piketty wrote about how world war was critical for reducing inequality, but Orwell mistakes that for radical ideological change.

It gets hard, frankly, to square Orwell's excitement about a planned economy with his stated disgust for totalitarianism. He never discusses, for example, who makes decisions and what happens if people elect someone who wants to overturn it all. His discussion of India's inability to be independent is also both wrong and condescending. Ironically, both in essays and novels Orwell was very good at knowing what he was against but his vision of what should be is hazy.

"A Hanging" 

A short piece on the barbaric yet bureaucratic process of the British Empire executing prisoners in Burma. We don't even know what the individual did, but we know it was rather a bother to kill people sometimes because it delays breakfast.

"Politics and the English Language"

In this essay Orwell claims the English language is dying, and chooses a few politically-oriented passages to criticize as illustration. Some of these come from professors (even *cough* a political theorist) and communists, neither of which has ever been known to be proficient in the art of writing, so it's a straw man argument from the start. He starts to sound like Ernest Hemingway with his directness mandates.

But his basic instructions make sense. Avoid overused phrases and pretentious diction, for example. Though I must say his list of pretentious words (element, eliminate, etc.) seem pretty mundane to me. He even hates cul de sac and everyone calls it that, so I guess on this one the dictionary won and he lost. He says that "fascism" has little real meaning so should be avoided, which I agree with for today, though of course his earlier essay worked to precisely define the term.

*Just after publishing I discovered one of my colleagues in History, Mark Wilson, recently published an award-winning book on this very topic.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Immigrants in Argentina

Thanks to my student Nashaly Ruiz-González for pointing out this article about the mirror image of the immigration debates in the United States and in Argentina. Mauricio Macri has been aping Donald Trump's anti-immigrant language and policy, and is also getting an indignant response. There were recently protests/strikes to highlight how much immigrants do in Argentina.


"Soy mexicano, soy peruana, soy boliviano, soy psicóloga, soy costurera, soy estudiante.... soy migrante. También aporto a tu economía, a tu cultura, a tu sociedad", sintetiza una convocatoria replicada en las redes sociales.

Just like the U.S., Argentina is a country of immigrants but more hostile to the non-white variety.

Update: Fittingly, Macri will be heading to the White House in a few weeks. They have a lot in common.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Impeachment and Presidentialism

In our podcast conversation, Leiv Marsteintredet and I talked a little about how presidential impeachment in Latin America had become like the equivalent of a parliamentary no-confidence vote, something I've blogged about before.

We also talked about the 2009 coup in Honduras, which occurred in part because there was no impeachment process that could be followed. Another part of that was the fact that there was no legal way to really deal with proposing changes to presidential terms. We both knew the latter had changed, but weren't sure about impeachment. But impeachment was indeed added to the constitution in 2013.

Leiv has argued that Latin American presidentialism has become more flexible over time, which has decreased military intervention. One problem for Honduras in 2009 is that its institutions were inflexible.

But this raises important questions about process. Should it be OK to resolve institutional conflict through impeachment, even if the dispute is over policy rather than crimes? We know Dilma Rousseff was not being accused directly of a crime--she was removed for policy reasons. Does it damage democracy over the long-term or should we accept it as an unpleasant but useful way to avoid military intervention or just violence in general? In other words, is acceptance corrosive?

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Monday, April 10, 2017

Podcast Episode 31: Presidentialism in Latin America

In Episode 31 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with Leiv Marsteintredet, who is Associate Professor of Latin American Area Studies at the University of Oslo. His main areas of study are presidentialism and constitutionalism in Latin America. I ask him about whether presidentialism is in crisis (or whether it's just always in crisis) and how this plays out across the region.


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Friday, April 07, 2017

ISIS in Latin America

Reading Admiral Kurt Tidd’s 2017 Posture Statement for U.S. Southern Command, two things jump out at me. First, there are repeated mentions of budget constraints. Second, there are repeated mentions of Middle Eastern terrorists, including ISIS. In short, at least from the outside this sounds like a way to get Donald Trump’s (or at least Jared Kushner’s) attention at a time when he is talking about increasing military budgets and ISIS.

Right off the bat:

Threat networks engage in a range of destabilizing illicit activities that further dangerous ideologies or generate profit. Violent extremist organizations like ISIS seek to radicalize and recruit vulnerable populations in the Caribbean and parts of Central and South America. Hezbollah members, facilitators, and supporters engage in licit and illicit activities in support of the organization, moving weapons, cash, and other contraband to raise funds and build Hezbollah’s infrastructure in the region.

That’s some serious red meat right there. When John Kelly (who of course is now Secretary of Homeland Security) did his last posturestatement, he definitely discussed Middle Eastern terrorism but couched it with phrases like “we have not yet seen evidence of this occurring.” But if you need money and money might be available, you do away with the nuance.

So we have a gradual expansion of SouthCom talking about such terrorists as more of an imminent threat in Latin America, which gets both the right and the alt-right excited. Go ahead and work with allies; go ahead and disrupt the financial networks. Just don't make this an excuse for ill-conceived intervention.



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Thursday, April 06, 2017

Venezuelans Like Their Legislature

The Latin American Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt has some brand new (October 2016-January 2017) survey data from Venezuela. Mariana Rodríguez and Liz Zechmeister just published a new AmericasBarometer Insights paper (it's been a while since one was published, so this was welcome). They show Venezuelans strongly disapprove of closing the legislature (a question they actually use in their normal battery, so obviously it's good to have in there).



As a matter of fact, over the past few years Venezuelans have increased their trust in the legislature:



We can reasonably argue that the executive branch attacks on the legislature have made it more popular. The authors further conclude that the recent attack will likely make Nicolás Maduro less popular. Since only 17% of Venezuelans think he is doing a "good" or "very good" job, he can't go a heck of a lot further down.

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Nica Act

The U.S. Congress has revived the Nica Act from last year, while making it more stringent. The idea is that the United States should block international loans if Daniel Ortega doesn't follow some required conditions. An initial version passed the House in late 2016 but didn't get further than that. The new version has more conditions. From Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's own description, arguing that it's the same for other countries:

The act placed numerous conditions on aid for Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador including certification that the governments were taking effective steps to address 16 conditions, including combating corruption, protecting human rights, combat human smuggling and trafficking, and improving border security.

Nicaragua is a poor country and I don't tend to see depriving the poor as a great way of fostering democratization. It also has more than a whiff of forcing drug tests on welfare recipients. Plus, unless I am missing something, Ros-Lehtinen is talking about aid, whereas the bill is about loans. It's worth noting that some in the Nicaraguan opposition thinks it matters, though.

I am liable to listen to Luis Almagro, clearly no shrinking violet on such matters, who does not support it.

The OAS General Secretariat considers that the bill, in the context of the present legislature, is not a productive contribution to the tasks that the Government of Nicaragua and the this General Secretariat are carrying out in terms of cooperation for democratic, electoral and institutional strengthening in the country, that have as a direct reference the principles and values of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

Meanwhile, the Nicaraguan government issued a flowery and lengthy denunciation.

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Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Crazy Wall Ideas

The bids for Donald Trump's wall are now in, and some of the companies have released descriptions of their proposals. The upshot is that they're insane.

Imagine making the wall a tourist attraction. Perhaps sip a cold beer (maybe even a Mexican beer) at the top of the wall while you stare off into the desert.

Imagine storing nuclear waste inside it. Kinda like a moat, maybe?

Imagine it containing artifacts. I'm not sure how that works, maybe it's embedded. Even worse, the artifacts might be Mexican.

Imagine making it really slippery, with some sort of constantly flowing slime.

Or, conversely, imagine no wall at all but a bunch of libraries and cultural centers. That too is a proposal, and probably one of the more sane ones.

This is what we're currently doing in the United States of America.

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Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Crying Fraud in Ecuador's Election

The Wall Street Journal has a piece on Guillermo Lasso's accusation of fraud in Sunday's presidential election in Ecuador. Especially coming from a conservative media outlet, the article does not reflect too well on Lasso's case.

Most problematic:

On Sunday, one of Mr. Lasso’s allies in his CREO coalition cited two other exit polls giving him the lead. However, one of the polls cited—by well-respected Informe Confidencial—was never conducted, said Santiago Nieto, the director of that polling firm. 
A private poll conducted by Informe Confidencial on Saturday showed Mr. Moreno leading with a 4.8% advantage over his opponent, said Mr. Nieto, adding that Mr. Lasso celebrated too early based on exit polls, which are often inaccurate. 
“I don’t think it’s correct to put the figures from a poll ahead of the official data,” he said in a telephone interview. Exit polls “are not trustworthy.”

Ouch! We already know that exit pools are hotly contested and should be used with extreme caution. If you want an example, just look at the controversy about the Latino vote in the 2016 presidential election. But we should also know that you should not base an argument on an exit poll that never actually occurred.

Also working against Lasso is that international observers did not detect fraud. The OAS, which is no mouthpiece of the left, has confirmed Lenín Moreno's victory. Further, the conservative governments of Argentina and Peru have already congratulated Moreno.

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Elliott Abrams and Human Rights in Latin America

Mike Allison writes about how Elliott Abrams is mad that The New York Times is claiming Ronald Reagan (and by extension him) was indifferent to human rights in El Salvador in its obituary of Ambassador Deane Hinton. As Abrams writes:

And Ronald Reagan was a great president under whom there were remarkable advances for human rights in Latin American and around the world. Let’s leave it at that.

Mike puts that in the context of Efraín Ríos Montt, who Reagan believed was a committed democrat, going on trial for genocide in Guatemala.

Let's just get something out of the way. The notion that there were any advances, much less remarkable ones, for human rights in Latin America--or anywhere, really--under Reagan requires ignoring Mt. Everest-sized mountains of contrary evidence. And it should be noted that Abrams himself served in the State Department under Reagan in a human rights capacity, and his idea of promoting human rights was to attack human rights organizations. Those groups, meanwhile, could only respond that Abrams was so vicious that sometimes his attacks helped their cause. More recently, he was a vocal supporter of the coup in Honduras.

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Monday, April 03, 2017

Podcast Episode 30: The Venezuelan Crisis

In Episode 30 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with Iñaki Sagarzazu, who is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University. He studies political communication, voting, and Venezuelan politics. The topic is Venezuela. Among other things, we talk about whether this was an autogolpe, the nature of divisions in the government, the international response, and we end on a depressing note about the military, agreeing it was fitting to end on a depressing note.


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Initial Thoughts on Ecuador's Election

Here are the current totals from Ecuador's Centro Nacional de Eleccciones:



The right is saying it will contest the results, so nothing is set yet. When the dust settles, more likely than not any given story will be framed in left/right terms. Assuming Moreno's victory holds, I think "a much needed victory for the Latin American left" will be by far the most common (TeleSur is hopping onto that bandwagon already).

I'll come back to the point I made in an op-ed in February, which is that the left/right thing isn't necessarily a helpful way to understand what's going on. Fundamentally, this is mostly about the Ecuadorian right's inability to craft an effective message after years of demonizing Rafael Correa. Voters look to who is going to solve their problems. If we want to see this in left/right terms, the best way is to consider it an utter failure of the right. As in the United States, too much of the Latin American right is so immersed in its dislike for the incumbent that it spends no time actually developing policy alternatives.

If there is a lesson here, it's for the right in Bolivia and Venezuela. If you want to win (and in Venezuela this is predicated on actually having elections, I know, but it was a problem even when elections were held) then find ways to appeal to people. And even if you do win, you have to govern.

There will be other stories too, such as the 6% who voted null, and of course the right's dispute of the results. Unfortunately, though, I expect the "big win for the Latin American left" to dominate and people will cling to the "pink tide" imagery.


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Sunday, April 02, 2017

Christopher Hitchens' Mortality

You immediately notice how short Christopher Hitchens' Mortality (2012) is, and soon learn he had a much larger vision in his head. He was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in June 2010 and died 18 months later. 


It is his effort to show what it means to be, as he puts it, "living dyingly." It's about suffering, straightforward and without wallowing, without religion (of course, for the famous atheist) and with apparently no regrets, and with no small amount of hope. He keeps coming back to the saying "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," which after his diagnosis he began to see as illusion. Some outcomes were just plainly not leaving you stronger, even if they put off death for a while.

Almost fittingly, the prose is as tight as ever until the final chapter, which is just jottings he was writing in hospitals and never able to make whole. 

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Saturday, April 01, 2017

A Weird Autogolpe in Venezuela

Some hours after the declaration by the Venezuelan Supreme Court, prosecutor (and Nicolás Maduro ally) Luisa Ortega said that the Supreme Court's action violated the constitution. This prompted a meeting of the Consejo de la Defensa de la Nación. That body issued a declaration read by Vice President Tarek El Aissami, framing the whole thing as a dispute between the legislative and judicial branches which, technically, it is, sort of, and for the court to review its own ruling to make sure "institutional stability" (which can be defined in any way you find convenient) was preserved.

Then it got weirder.

The core of the declaration is to call for dialogue. Who exactly will be engaging in dialogue is uncertain, given that all the government needs to do is rescind an illegal measure and actually allow the legislature to...legislate. And of course for a recall election to go forward as the constitution provides.

Then it called for dialogue for the broader crisis, not acknowledging that the only reason there's a crisis is because the government is taking illegal measures and uses dialogue as a way to endlessly delay action.

Finally, it took a gratuitous swipe at the OAS because they all hate Luis Almagro. Not really any other reason for that to be in there.

Several possibilities come to mind. They are not mutually exclusive.

1. The Venezuelan government is preparing to back off the Supreme Court decision, and will claim that doing so was a major concession, then require concession from the opposition, thus leaving things the same while pretending to move forward. This is more of the "master plan" sort of explanation and assumes a lot of guile for Maduro.

2. There are real fissures already within the government, and Maduro et al are getting nervous about how long unity will last under duress so are already cracking.

3. Maduro is not certain what the Supreme Court is doing and there is too much chaos (or distrust?) for coordination. That would make this autogolpe even weirder.

Developing...

Update: LITERALLY one minute after I hit "publish" I saw this breaking story on the Supreme Court reversing its decision. Weird indeed.

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Friday, March 31, 2017

Autogolpe in Venezuela

There has been an autogolpe, or self-coup, in Venezuela. The Supreme Court ruled that it would govern in the place of the National Assembly, and would feel free to prosecute members of the legislature. Horizontal accountability, already barely there, is now gone entirely. Unlike Peru in 1992 and Guatemala in 1993, the judicial system was part of it, not a target. But the basic idea is the same. In the language of all dictatorships, the government argues that democracy must be attacked in order to be preserved.

I had a lengthy Twitter discussion with Quico Toro yesterday, as he (like others) called on the military to do something. He argued that all other avenues had been exhausted. I argued that hope lay in pushing the splits between hardliners and softliners. Henry Ramos Allsup has said he thinks there plenty of people in the military and in the government who believe this is undemocratic and want elections.

Empowering chavista democrats is the challenge. My own opinion--for now, at least!--is that the best way to do this is for Latin America to close ranks. As I've made clear, I don't think Latin American unity is on the horizon. Maybe the autogolpe changes that. Maybe someone like Rafael Correa, who accepts elections and term limits, says something privately. Something along those lines could give life to the softliners. Peru recalled its ambassador but for now the response is not too strong.

If Latin America abdicates its responsibility, then the situation is more dire. At some point there will be large protests, and those protests will be repressed. Perhaps, as in 1989, a chunk of the military will resent being forced to do the repressing, and push back. Or perhaps a lot of people die and not much changes.

I suppose it's also possible that nothing happens, and everyone waits to see whether a presidential election is held in 2018. Meanwhile, Venezuela becomes more and more like Zimbabwe.

As they say, it's developing.

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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Postmortem on Venezuela and the OAS

I recommend Geoff Ramsey's post at WOLA's Venezuela blog about five key takeaways from the OAS session. Actually, I find the entire episode almost more interesting for what it says about broader issues than about Venezuela per se.

So, for example, the Trump administration is doing exactly what I would want a U.S. government to do, which is play an active role but one that is quiet and collaborative. As President Obama said several years ago with regard to foreign policy, "Don't do stupid shit." Marco Rubio is falling into that trap, but thus far Trump isn't in the Venezuelan case*. And that's amazing, really.

Next, Mexico playing a lead is quite a development. Remember when Brazil was the presumed hemispheric diplomatic player? Lula cherished that (as did many past Brazilian presidents), Dilma did so less, and now it's entirely dormant. Given its size, its threat from the Trump administration, but also ironically its close connections to the Trump administration, Mexico could be a hemispheric leader.

*Just one 3:00 a.m. tweet could destroy this, but so far, so good.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Conservative Take on Cuba

Rep. James Comer, a conservative Republican from Kentucky, just returned from Cuba, where he joined four other members of Congress on a trade mission. He then published an op-ed calling for the end of the embargo. He makes a good case, with essentially the same arguments I (and many others) have been making for years.


The foreign policy position of every American President from Eisenhower to Obama has essentially been to shut off Cuba’s economy through an embargo, thereby starving its people and hoping the people would rise up and overthrow the Castro Regime.  However, what would transpire over the years with the embargo is that the Castro Regime blamed the blunders of the Cuban economy on the American embargo. Thus, the regime remained in power despite horrible economic conditions and standards of living for Cuban citizens.  In other words, U.S. policy toward Cuba actually helped Castro remain in power and keep Cuba a socialist state.
 Lifting the US embargo against Cuba is an overall win-win.  It is a win for foreign policy because countries that the US trades with are countries with which we have good relations. Similarly, countries we ban trade with are the ones where conflict often arises.  Noting Cuba’s proximity to the US, the last thing we need is for China or Russia to establish its own Guantanamo Bay Military Base pointed right at us.  It is also a win for trade, especially agricultural trade.

I'm not concerned about China or Russia establishing a base, which won't happen, but overall I agree.

The big question of course is whether Donald Trump sees Cuba in economic terms or in Cold War terms for his Florida constituency. Comer tries to play to his "make a better deal for Americans" schtick. Bit by bit, Republicans over the years have moved away from support for the embargo, so are ready to accept liberalization.

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Marco Rubio's "Bully" Pulpit

One way not to get what you want is to bully other countries publicly.

Sen. Marco Rubio sent a strong warning to the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Haiti on Monday, saying that it would be difficult to protect them from possible cuts in U.S. aid if they fail to defend democracy when the Venezuelan government comes up for a possible sanctions vote at the Organization of American States (OAS). 
The Florida Republican, one of the harshest critics of the Venezuelan government in Washington, told El Nuevo Herald that the OAS vote set for Tuesday is exceptionally important for the future of democracy in the region, and of the hemispheric organization itself. 
The vote would even affect the assistance that Washington provides to El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, he added.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/article141080013.html#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/article141080013.html#storylink=cpy

This made me think immediately of George W. Bush pressuring Chile and Mexico (among others) in 2003 to get their UN votes for the invasion of Iraq. It did not go over well, and poisoned the U.S.-Mexico relationship for a long time.

Even worse in this case is the obvious fact that punishing El Salvador and Haiti will only make migration and other issues worse, which then creates more problems for the U.S. As with so many aspects of U.S. policy, unintended (but foreseeable) consequences hover around. Though I suppose we've been learning that blustering and then not getting what you want is a hallmark of the current administration.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Podcast Episode 29: Venezuela and the OAS

In Episode 29 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I consider the obstacles to the OAS taking some sort of action with regard to Venezuela. My basic argument is that prescriptive analyses aren't terribly useful unless we think about what challenges must first be overcome.

The upshot is that it will take a Herculean effort for anything substantive to happen.

I want to give a shout out to Xanda Lemos, a doctoral student in History at Emory University, alumnus of UNC Charlotte, and musician, for providing the musical clip at the beginning, which was something I had been lacking.


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Monday, March 27, 2017

Problems With Implementing Colombia's Peace Agreement

I recommend listening to Adam Isacson's podcast, where in his first episode he discusses challenges to implementing Colombia's peace agreement, especially with regard to measures being delayed. The list of potential reasons is alarmingly long. He also notes that there are precisely 571 "observable, measurable actions" that all the parties to the accords have to complete. Trying to do that much in such a complex environment is daunting.

One point he makes that I found interesting was that one (of the many) potential problems is that the Colombian military might be the state institution with the best logistical capabilities, yet for obvious reasons it cannot be used to help the FARC demobilize. So the logistics suffer badly.

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Saturday, March 25, 2017

Trump and Soft Power in Latin America

Andrés Oppenheimer brings up a useful point about the Trump administration and Latin America. When floods hit Peru, countries from around Latin America (including Venezuela, which can ill afford it) responded.

The presidents of Spain, Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Nicaragua, Honduras and Panama, among others, had either called Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski or announced humanitarian aid to Peru, the report said. But there was no mention of the United States. 
When I called a senior aide to Kuczynski to ask him whether the United States had been accidentally left out of the news report, he said there was still no official statement from Washington, nor an announcement of U.S. aid.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/andres-oppenheimer/article140381658.html#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/andres-oppenheimer/article140381658.html#storylink=cpy

This is all about soft power. In the article I recently published on the Obama Doctrine and Cuba, soft power was an important component. When you ditch soft power, you lose leverage. If you slice up the State Department and other government agencies, it's harder to respond effectively to crises. Trump is moving in a direction of almost exclusive use of hard power, with threats and bluster leading the way. That will not achieve U.S. policy goals in Latin America, though I suppose we don't have a firm grip of what the administration's policy goals in the region actually are.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Podcast Episode 28: Human Rights in Chile

In Episode 28 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with my friend and co-author Silvia Borzutzky, Teaching Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Carnegie Mellon University. She has written extensively on social security and health policies in Chile, as well as Chilean politics. She has a forthcoming book with Palgrave entitled Human Rights Policies in Chile: The Unfinished Struggle for Truth and Justice: 1990-2014, that will be coming out this year. That’s our topic, especially the distinction between truth and justice.


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Trump, the IACHR, and Venezuela

The Trump administration refused to attend a meeting of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which is looking into the effects of the immigration Executive Orders.

My immediate reaction was that this was great for the Venezuelan government. Hugo Chávez hated the IACHR and even pulled out of it in 2012. It has been, in fact, persistent in highlighting human rights abuses in Venezuela. If there was going to be any sort of hemispheric response to the Venezuelan crisis, the IACHR would have been part of it in some manner. As I've argued, there won't be a unified response, and this is really just another example.

Now Trump has signaled that it does not value the IACHR, which puts him squarely in the same camp as Nicolás Maduro. Every day they seem to have more in common.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Gangs in El Salvador

A group of researchers at Florida International University wrote a lengthy report on gangs in El Salvador, based on surveys and interviews. The title is "The New Face of Street Gangs: The Gang Phenomenon in El Salvador." I know from talking to one of the authors, Jonathan Rosen, that he personally went into Salvadoran prisons to do the interviews. That's some serious fieldwork (with some serious IRB requirements!).

Some key points:

--contrary to widespread opinion (including mine) there seems to be little connection with migration/deportation. The interviewees were born and raised in El Salvador and had little connection with peers in the U.S. I think this deserves even more attention. The gangs are indeed transnational but the connections are not always clear.

--another transnational connection is the long-term effect of the civil war, which tore families apart. "El Salvador has been left with a broken social fabric as a result of the prolonged civil war" (p. 23).

--leaving gangs does happen, though it's not easy.

--having a religious experience is a major part of leaving gangs.

--kids join gangs for the reasons you would expect, such as economic deprivation. The results strongly suggest that they'd prefer something else. They want education and jobs.

It's well worth a read.

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Monday, March 20, 2017

Official Border Wall Requirements

You can go to the list of new contracts for Customs and Border Protection to see what the Trump administration wants for its wall. For example:



That's a screenshot. So it needs to be reinforced concrete, "imposing," and not amenable to ladders. It should resist a sledgehammer for an hour. It should be impervious to a tunnel up to six feet under (is there an implied pun there?).

And of course it should be aesthetically pleasing, with different colors and textures. It does not specify motif.

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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Rick Waddell, Maker of Peace War

Donald Trump named General Rick Waddell as the Western Hemisphere Director on the National Security Council (after his predecessor, Craig Deare, was fired for criticizing Trump). Early in his early military career in the mid-1980s, he served in Honduras and write a book about that experience. The title, In War’s Shadow: Waging Peace in Central America, immediately gives you a feel for Waddell’s proclivities.

Waddell’s intelligence comes through. He’s a really smart individual. But he reveals a rigid vision of the political world that seems untouched by counter-evidence and is accompanied by quite open contempt for those who disagree. This might make him an excellent Trump official.

Early on, Waddell sounds positively Trumpist. Our “wavering allies” are “leeches” (p.36) and as he looks at rich Latin Americans at the Miami airport, he notes that as an “ardent nationalist” (p. 37) he is comforted by the fact that they seem to “have respect for America” (p. 37). Even the education system in the U.S. “declared war on teaching” by not providing enough curriculum on the glories of past battles like Inchon (p. 5). Thankfully, the election of Ronald Reagan brought back flag waving (p. 13). Yes, he specifically mentions flag waving. If you stray from rigid patriotism too far, you produce “drivel” (p. 35) and are beneath his contempt. If you don’t show enough religious fervor, you’re part of “the decline in the spiritual nature of young Americans today” (p. 70). As the book progresses, you hear loud and clear his disdain for the press, which overstates scandal (the “nasty ol’ military [p.81)]) and never gives proper credit for the peace and democracy we were spreading to Central America. Throughout the book he veers off into bitterness about the media. He even attacks CNN for “bald, bold-faced lies” (p. 122). Trump could not have said—or tweeted—it better.

In short, all the way back in 1992, Waddell already dreamed of Making America Great Again.

He takes pains to lambaste the “radicals” who espouse dependency theory, which he says believes the Honduran economy is controlled by the U.S. “for the benefit of overweight housewives who wanted cheap bananas” (p. 49). That is a novel description of dependency theorists, somehow simultaneously inaccurate and sexist. Instead, for Waddell underdevelopment is due in part to “ignorance” (p. 49) A much simpler explanation, to be sure. He was also “depressed” at Congress’ refusal to fund the Contras, which was due to the “typically misinformed, vote-grabbing Democratic congressman” (pp. 117-118). Liberals don’t like protecting the U.S. of A.

For Waddell, the idea that U.S. actions could be considered imperialist is ridiculous. The U.S. government was just protecting its national security, which made it perfectly acceptable to station troops in the country and pour enormous amounts of money into projects the U.S. deemed necessary. He consciously tries to be culturally sensitive, such as condemning the pejorative term “Hondos” for Hondurans, but he is utterly unquestioning of the U.S. presence there in the first place. He expressed bitterness that President Reagan would not get “accolades” for it (p. 67). As an independent entity, Honduras seemed barely to exist. That the U.S. was doing Honduras a big favor by being there goes without saying.

Waddell believed that if U.S. troops were to be stationed in a country, they should work with locals on infrastructure. That collaboration was necessary, he believed, because “[i]t would be no good to create a welfare mentality” (p. 58) by having American soldiers do all the work. And in general he’s dismissive. Noting that the Hondurans wondered why there was so much money for GI entertainment but less for working on projects within Honduras, Waddell just notes that they “refused to understand the legalities of congressional authorizations” (p. 95).

Vietnam seeps into every page. The war was poisonous because it weakened discipline, undermined patriotism, and made the Army soft. At least back in the 1980s, he believed it had not recovered. This is the fault of the 1960s protestors, the liberal media, and the loss of traditional values. This galls him.


Low intensity conflict had a major impact on Waddell, who kept writing about how the Army needed to adapt to new realities of conflict. As he concludes with satisfaction, “all too often freedom still proceeds from the barrel of a gun” (p. 205). And he’s now advising the president on Latin America.

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Friday, March 17, 2017

Inaction in Latin America

A few days ago I published my article on how Latin America won't unite, using the Venezuela crisis as one example. Right around the same time, Luis Almagro called for Venezuela to be suspended from the OAS if Nicolás Maduro didn't call elections within thirty days.

So what happened?

--Peru's foreign minister, who serves the most active president in South America right now, said this was "extreme" and there is no consensus for suspension

--Argentine President Mauricio Macri was already undercutting Almagro's efforts in Venezuela before his announcement because he wants support for nominating a UN chief.

--the Permanent Conference of Political Parties of Latin America and the Caribbean, an organization of leftist parties, closed ideological ranks and criticized Almagro.

--Rafael Correa would not let Lilian Tintori (Leopoldo López's wife) into Ecuador to make the case against the Venezuelan government, though she did talk to Brazilian officials.

--the Mexican legislature is discussing the issue.

Taken together, these are not suggestive of action. Leftists close ranks and conservatives don't care enough.

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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Colombia's Coca Boom

I highly recommend Adam Isacson's article over at the Washington Office on Latin America about the renewed coca boom in Colombia. It is, as you might guess, complicated. The problem is that policy makers too easily view it as simple.

He covers it all, with some great visuals that I will be gratefully be using to discuss Colombian politics next week in class. Here is the crux:

Establishing a functional, low-impunity state presence in vast ungoverned territories is essential if Colombia is ever to lock in permanent reductions in coca cultivation, to halt the terrifying current wave of attacks on social leaders, and to prevent other illegal armed groups from assuming control of previously FARC-dominated areas. Governing abandoned areas is a complicated task, but it should be eased by the historic exit of a hostile insurgent group.

And this map, from the Colombian government itself, shows how big this challenge is.



We need patience, which even in the best of times is not a common trait for politicians. Secretary of State Tillerson has already signaled his disinterest in the peace plan, and so we can only hope that he is as irrelevant to policy-making as he seems to be.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Latin America Will Not Unite

I wrote this piece for Latin America Goes Global about how Latin America won't unite and I'm not particularly nice about it. The region is facing serious threats with regard to Venezuela and to Trump, but no problems seem to have any real unifying force.

I rarely make predictions like this, and I must say I hope I'm hope. I'll be happy to be wrong and explain why I so blithely wrote Latin American leaders off. I don't think that'll happen, though.

By coincidence, David Smilde just wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about trying to get a regional response to Venezuela. So read his piece as a counterpart. He sounds a somewhat hopeful note. I'm the sad trombone.

As a side note, some of the genesis for this comes from my undergraduates. In discussion I'll get questions like "Why don't Latin American countries get together?" It's an excellent question.

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Monday, March 13, 2017

Podcast Episode 27: How Latin America Views Trump

In episode 27 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with my friend Robert Funk, who is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Instituto de Asuntos Públicos at the Universidad de Chile. He's in the media a lot trying to explain Donald Trump to Latin American audiences. That's what we discuss. For better or worse, schadenfreude is one word that comes up.


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More Legal Coca in Bolivia

Evo Morales is increasing the amount of coca that Bolivians can legally grow, from 12,000 to 22,000 hectares.

"It was time to bury Law 1008, which sought to eliminate coca in Bolivia," President Morales said, referring to a U.S.-led 1988 law which sought to limit production and impose harsh penalties for illegal coca cultivation.

My immediate reaction was to wonder why it took this long--almost 30 years. Morales de-linked from the US drug war years ago. For example, he kicked out the Drug Enforcement Agency in 2011 and worked more with Brazil instead.

Law 1008 has been denounced for a long time, by both Bolivians and scholars in the U.S., and human rights organizations for being U.S.-imposed and draconian. Morales had apparently been sidestepping the law already, but I am curious why it remained on the books.

I assume the Trump administration will denounce this, assuming there is actually someone paying attention.

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Friday, March 10, 2017

Podcast Episode 26: Comparing Latin America Media Attacks to Trump

On Episode 26 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talked with Liz Stein, who is the Mark Helmke postdoctoral scholar of global media, development and democracy and a visiting assistant professor at Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies. The topic is presidential attacks on media in Latin America, with comparison to Donald Trump. Be sure to check out her recent piece in the Monkey Cage with Marisa Kellan on this very topic.


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State Department Dysfunction

From The Hill:

The State Department’s acting spokesperson admitted Thursday that he did not know Mexico’s foreign minister was in Washington to meet with senior White House aides.

And it gets worse:

Videgaray met Thursday with President Trump's son-in-law and Senior Adviser Jared Kushner, as well as National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, according to the Los Angeles Times.

At this point, the State Department is barely functioning at all. Rex Tillerson appears to have no White House access, no sway, and no clue.

We must come to accept that Jared Kushner is now running a big part of Latin America policy. When Chris Sabatini wrote about the possible Latin America appointees, like everyone else he assumed there would be...appointees. But this is a family affair, run by people who know how to build golf courses.

Morale at the State Department is plummeting and experts at State have no influence of any kind, which is precisely what Trump wants. Experts just make things complicated.

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Thursday, March 09, 2017

David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster

I read and thoroughly enjoyed David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster, a collection of essays he published in 2006. It's tremendous writing, where erudition, humor, and keen observation all come together in a neat package. It's a massive mind rattling around America.

Wallace is famous for footnotes, and this book gets to the point where footnotes of footnotes are down to something like 2 point font to the point that my middle aged eyes are literally incapable of reading them without a microscope. But anyway.

The essays:

Big Red Son: this is about the porn industry, and specifically the Adult Video News awards ceremony. Wallace's deadpan view of the main players and the ceremony itself lets them become almost parodies of themselves. For some reason I also smiled at his Midwestern dialect as he mentions eating "supper" with porn stars. As someone who does not use the term, for me it conjures up a wholesome scene of homemade food and family talk, so it was jarring to see it used for people with minimal clothing eating terrible buffet food and making lewd jokes.

Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think: a hilariously negative review of John Updike's 1997 novel Toward the End of Time.

Besides distracting us with worries about whether Mr. Updike might be injured or ill, the turgidity of the prose also increases our dislike of the novel’s narrator...
Ouch.

Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed: a short speech from a new edition of some Kafka work. It makes you realize not only how smart and well-read he is, but how lucky undergraduates were at Illinois State when they happened to stumble onto Wallace's literature course.

Authority and American Usage: putatively an essay about a new book on English usage and how political it can be, it becomes Wallace's way of explaining why he's so obsessed with usage. He labels himself as "We are the Few, the Proud, the More or Less Constantly Appalled at Everyone Else." We learn, among other things, that Wallace was an avid reader of dictionary introductions, which apparently always involve the polemics of language. The core of the article is the never-ending debate between prescriptive and descriptive ways of understanding language, and he even uses a very funny example of men wearing pants or skirts as an illustration. Somehow that organically leads to a discussion of race and class.

The View From Mrs. Thompson: A brief narrative, diary almost, of his 9/11 experience, which becomes largely a description of Bloomington, IN and the Midwestern response in general. Quick but moving in its own way (the narrative, not the Midwest). With a twist.

How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart: Wallace is a huge tennis fan and former player (tennis was a key part of Infinite Jest) so he reviewed Tracy Austin's ghostwritten memoir. Its hard for me to imagine why he looked forward to reading it, but it worked out well because he hated it and enjoyed explaining the genre of ghostwritten books by athletes. There are gems like "there's little sign in this narrator of anything like the frontal-lobe activity required for outright deception."

Up, Simba: Wallace rode around with John McCain in the 2000 primaries for a week or so. Once you get past the now-jarring idea that McCain got people excited by somehow claiming outsider status, you can better enjoy the essay. I didn't connect as much with this essay, both because it seems like fairly uninteresting context now but also because he spends a lot of time detailing tedium. "If this all seems really static and dull, by the way, then understand that you're getting a bona fide look at the reality of media life on the Trail." Even for such a gifted writer, 80 pages of tedium can become, well, tedious. [Note: if you're wondering "Up, Simba" is what the McCain cameraman would say as he lifted the camera to his shoulder. That the title came from something so mundane gives you a sense of the essay].

Consider the Lobster: "For practical purposes, everyone knows what a lobster is. As usual, though, there's much more to know than most of us care about."  He goes to the Maine Lobster Festival, actually for Gourmet magazine of all outlets. A straightforward description of the festival then veers into the ethics of dropping a live being into a pot of boiling water so you can eat it. The result is both thought-provoking and funny. Wallace questions himself and asks the reader to question his/herself as well. I actually don't eat meat precisely for many of the reasons he (a dedicated carnivore) lays out.

Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky: He reviews the fourth of a five volume literary biography of Dostoevsky. He writes of good characters: "The best of them live inside us, forever, once we've met them." It's interspersed with quick paragraphs reflecting on love, religion, and other Big Issues and I am not really sure how he thought they fit in. As he discussed Dostoevsky's own work (as opposed to the work about his work) I couldn't help but feel Wallace specifically viewed him as a model for his own approach to writing.

Host: Wallace looks at conservative radio talk show host John Ziegler (who I had never heard of). For some reason he does not use regular footnotes, but instead puts what are clearly footnotes into boxes throughout the text with arrows pointing to them. It is not what you'd call an easy way to read. But overall his discussion of lack of accountability is prescient for the age we're in, where the president himself makes up stories in the moments when he's not playing golf. Actually, that ends up making the essay harder to read--we're living the negative effects it describes.

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U.S. Aid to Colombia

U.S. diplomats were in Colombia to discuss two issues. The first was the rise in coca cultivation in Colombia and the second was the strong possibility that the U.S. would drastically cut its promised contribution to the Colombian peace process.

The reasons for the increase are complex and in part return us to the age-old supply/demand dispute. Largely because of years of abuse and distrust, farmers are in no mood to be sprayed and don't want the government come in and manually eradicate. The delicate nature of the peace process has meant the Santos administration hasn't pushed back. Budget cuts also play into this. But good old demand in the U.S. is also up, so there is always a strong incentive to stay in the coca industry.

Cutting U.S. aid for the peace process would be counterproductive. However, so is throwing millions of dollars at the Colombian military. In other words, cuts won't necessarily alarm me if what's sent is aimed primarily at confidence building, infrastructure, economic development, and the like. There is a deep divide between the urban and rural Colombia, between those that suffer the most from the potent mix of drug trafficking and the wars against it and those that don't. Rural Colombia needs to be better integrated into the rest of the country, and U.S. aid should focus on achieving that.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Bernard Malamud's The Natural

It's common for baseball fans to have opinions, sometimes intense ones, about baseball movies. So right off the bat (no pun intended) I will admit that I'm a big fan of The Natural. I know it's cheesy and unrealistic in a particular Hollywood sort of way, but the cheese works.

But until now I'd never read Bernard Malamud's The Natural, the 1952 novel on which the movie is based. The core structure is there--the young phenom shot down after striking out The Whammer, the return when he'd older, the corrupt owner, and so on--but it is a tragedy where the movie is a triumph. Roy Hobbs makes poor choices instead of virtuous ones, is petty instead of generous, his life destroyed versus fulfilled.

For me, both work. People have to wade through dirt and grime as they work to achieve their goals, so one is about disappointment while the other is about having it all. Take your pick based on your mood.

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Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Venezuela's Oil Fantasy

The Venezuelan state news agency posted a triumphant story today about how exactly 14 years ago, Hugo Chávez appointed new directors to PDVSA, thus defeating the imperialist right. Incredibly, it goes on to say:

A catorce años del sabotaje criminal, y gracias a la consolidación de un sistema democrático, la industria petrolera ha experimentado un proceso de transformación que le ha permitido continuar la exploración, explotación y comercialización de crudo, y contribuir a la vez con el desarrollo de programas sociales para atender las necesidades de la población.

Quick translation: "Fourteen years since the criminal sabotage, and thanks to the consolidation of a democratic system, the oil industry has experienced a transformational process that has allowed it to continue the exploration, exploitation, and commercialization of crude, and to contribute at the same time to the development of social program to address the needs of the people."

Now, do me a favor and Google "PDVSA." There will be a lot there, but just go ahead and click on a few. The Reuters one looks interesting:

Venezuela's state-run oil company, PDVSA, has fallen months behind on shipments of crude and fuel under oil-for-loan deals with China and Russia, according to internal company documents reviewed by Reuters.

Or maybe Bloomberg:
The recent bump in oil prices isn’t enough to help Petroleos de Venezuela SA as it faces its fourth consecutive year of declining production. 
The company’s crude output is expected to fall this year as it failed to raise cash for investments and after Venezuela agreed to cut 95,000 barrels a day for six months as part of a deal struck by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and other non-members to lift oil prices, analysts say. Even the recent increase in oil prices, following the cuts, aren’t enough to ease the company’s financial burden, Lucas Aristizabal, a senior director at FitcTh Ratings, said.
Basically, it's difficult to find anything that provides even a remotely positive view of PDVSA and its future (that Google search even finds criticism from the left). It will soon be financially incapable of contributing to much of anything.

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Monday, March 06, 2017

Cuban Human Rights and the Trump Administration

The State Department released its human rights report, though was uninterested in it to the point that State did not have anyone on the record discuss it. I was curious about what it would look like under the Trump administration, so I compared 2015 Cuba to 2016 Cuba.

What I found is that about 90% of the report is copied verbatim from last year. This is not necessarily news since 2014 was very similar to 2015. In fact, 2014, 2015, and 2016 all have the following:

During the year some religious groups reported greater latitude to express their opinions during sermons and at religious gatherings, although most members of the clergy continued to exercise self-censorship. 

If indeed that latitude increased every year, there would be real progress, but more likely is that no one bothered ever to update the sentence. This seems like laziness, which afflicted both administrations. If I am missing something here, I am happy to be corrected.

Regardless, there was tweaking here and there, but the tenor of the report didn't change. A quick look suggests the same is true of Venezuela.

One might expect that if the administration was anticipating more aggressive policy, this could be one place to formally lay out the human rights rationale. That isn't happening here. On the other hand, Trump himself has shown zero interest in the State Department and the State Department has shown no interest in this report, so possibly every word I've written here was a waste of time because no one with any power will read/use the report at all.

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