Monday, October 13, 2014

Arguing the Cuban Embargo

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Carlos Alberto Montaner explains why the United States should maintain the embargo and not normalize relations with Cuba. It rests on four pillars, which are so easily undercut that the logic topples down.

1. We can't do so because Cuba on the state sponsor of terrorism list. I see. Well, since it is well documented that Cuba shouldn't be on the list, then just take them off. North Korea isn't even on it.

2. Cuban American members of Congress speak for every single Cuban American in the country, and they like the embargo, so it should stay. I am not joking--he really argues this. Discard.

3. Cuba actively tries to undermine the interests of the United States. If so, it's quite bad at it. I can't think of anything the U.S. has done for many years that the Cuban government has been able to undermine.

4. Normalizing relations would signal to the Cuban government that they don't need to reform. The problem with this argument is that the embargo sends that message even more strongly. If anything, normalizing gives the Cuban opposition more space--especially economically--than they would otherwise have.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Bolivia's Economic Success

The Wall Street Journal has a story (in Spanish) about Luis Alberto Arce, the Minister of Economy and Public Financing in Bolivia. With a picture of Che in his office, he oversees a conservative approach to the economy, which has allowed for growth, foreign investment AND poverty reduction.

In the United States, we mostly hear about how Evo Morales makes some speech criticizing the United States, or even how he's just one of the clones of the Latin American left. Yet with help from people like Arce, he's brought unprecedented stability to Bolivia--truly amazing when you consider it in historical perspective.

Arce is also one of the rare people to get favorable coverage in the WSJ and TeleSur, each emphasizing their own particular slant. No small feat.





Thursday, October 9, 2014

U.S. and Latin American Relations Update

I just submitted the revised manuscript of the 2nd edition U.S. and Latin American Relations to Wiley (my last update on the book was a month ago). I had three excellent reviewers, who will see the fruits of their considerable labor. There wasn't much overhaul but a lot of small things added up--I also switched the order of two chapters.

I've already been trying to address various permissions issues (for photos and primary documents) and now we hopefully will be able to move forward fairly quickly. But there are still various tasks to complete:

1. Permissions get finalized.
2. The manuscript will have to be formatted and copy-edited.
3. I go over all the copy-edits
4. I get a fresh set of page proofs and make an index
5. We agree on cover art

Looking back, I see that it was exactly one year ago that I signed the contract with Wiley and started work. There has been a lot of intense work since then.

This will be out in 2015, likely spring, knock on wood! It will be fun to see it in print so many years after the first edition was published. If you want a taste, go buy a cheap used old edition and see if you would be interested in having it all updated and expanded.

Central Planning and Big Data in Allende's Chile

Simply fascinating article in The New Yorker about consultant Stafford Beer being invited to Chile to help the Salvador Allende government set up what we would now call a "Big Data" project to coordinate central planning. It is based on Eden Medina's book Cybernetic Revolutionaries, which I have not read but should.

The idea was science fiction-like. You would sit in a futuristic chair--of course equipped with ash tray and glass holder--in a room with screens, which would feed constantly updated data about production, supplies, etc. and even allowing for quick projections of the probable effects of your decisions before you commit to them. "La vía chilena" would therefore be as scientifically based as possible. It never actually worked, in part because of the difficulties inherent in such a project but also because the Allende government had so little time in office.

It made me think of how interesting a comparison would be between different efforts at central planning, and what kinds of political and economic impacts those strategies had. Both Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez seemed much more whimsical, focused on their gut feelings.

h/t Mark Healey on Twitter

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Textbook Skyping

Today I skyped with a class on U.S.-Latin American relations that is using my book, which was fun (even though I am slowly getting over a cold and had a brief coughing fit in the middle!). I know anecdotally that people (instructors and students) who use one of my books often check out my blog, so I want to let you know I am more than happy to do the same if you're interested. I love engaging with students who are reading my stuff--it likely will sound terribly cliche, but they're the ones I'm really writing for. Just shoot me an email.



Interview on Understanding Latin American Politics

If you want to hear me talk about my book Understanding Latin American Politics, here is the link to an interview I did with Keith Simmons for New Books in Latin American Studies. Incidentally, it is not what I normally sound like--I am slowly getting over a cold that left me hoarse.

Cuba and the Summit

Dan Restrepo has an op-ed in the Miami Herald, taking Latin America to task for focusing so much on Cuba for the 2015 Summit of the Americas.

With proper preparation, the summit presents an opportunity for others in the region to also be more creative and hopefully more effective in defending the basic rights of the Cuban people as well as of others across the Americas.

Doing so will require Latin American leaders to unmoor themselves from domestic political calculation, vanquish historical ghosts and let go of unrealistic desires to go down in history as the person who bridged the divide across the Florida Straits.


The funny thing is that U.S. leaders refuse to unmoor themselves from domestic politics, continue living in the past (something the embargo embodies) and create strong incentives for Latin American presidents to obsess on Cuba. So Restrepo is asking Latin America to do precisely what we won't.

I agree that the region should be more critical of human rights in Cuba and that the summit should move past Cuba and into more substantive areas. Although the Obama administration could help with that, it likely won't.


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Interpreting Latin America's Slowdown

Latin America's economic growth is slowing. By chance I happened to see two accounts that use the same variables but come to completely different conclusions. So the Wall Street Journal and a political economist writing for Telesur both say the slowdown is due in large part because of China's decreased demand for commodities and the United States winding down its stimulus.

The WSJ conclusion is mostly "glass half full":

There is a silver lining to the slowdown. After decades of going through debt-fueled booms followed by costly busts, the current downturn appears to be part of a more conventional business cycle, which the World Bank describes as an “unprecedented experience” for the region. 
“That is good news because the bust is very bad for equality, very bad for growth and can set the region back several years,” Mr. de la Torre said.

The Telesur conclusion is conspiratorial and even apocalyptic:

It should also be noted that certain recent USA government policies have also been exacerbating Latin America’s emerging recession.  The USA is taking advantage of the emerging recessions in Latin America to put additional economic pressure on two of the region’s most important economies: Argentina and Venezuela. This further destabilization suggests that the USA may be ‘turning’ again toward a focus on Latin America in an effort to reassert its hegemony in the region and to roll back the progressive developments and governments there that have arisen in recent years. But how the USA is now attacking both Argentina and Venezuela—i.e. by defending the vulture capitalist hedge fund billionaires in the case of Argentina debt payments and by working with US multinational corporations to artificially create a dollar shortage and runaway inflation in the case of Venezuela in a USA effort to still further destabilize the slowing economies of both countries—s the subject of a subsequent essay and analysis.

Take your pick!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Chile Taking on Bolivia

The Chilean Foreign Ministry put together a short video outlining why Bolivia has no legitimate claim at the International Court of Justice for the land lost as a result of the War of the Pacific.



It's a frontal assault and includes clips from Michelle Bachelet, Ricardo Lagos, Eduardo Frei, Sebastián Piñera, as well as Heraldo Muñez (FYI, it is in Spanish but with English subtitles). They argue that Bolivia's claim basically tries to undo the fabric of the international system, even while Chile spends millions and millions to provide port access and acts like a good neighbor.

Evo Morales was not pleased:

"Son promesas solemnes de otorgarnos el acceso soberano al mar, Bolivia no es un país sin Litoral sino que es un país privado de Litoral, ya que nació como país con 400 kilómetros de costa que le fueron arrebatados por Chile tras una invasión violenta de 1879", fundamentó. 
El Jefe de Estado boliviano argumentó que todas las naciones mediterráneas gozan de facilidades equivalentes a un acceso soberano, "mucho más que quien lo pide tuvo por más de medio siglo 120.000 kilómetros cuadrados de territorio ribereño" 
En esa dirección, apuntó que Bolivia no presentó una demanda contraria al derecho internacional ni pretende alterar el orden mundial de límites. 
"Por el contrario si el derecho internacional fuera inmutable no se justificaría la existencia de la Corte Internacional de Justicia, que ha resuelto en justicia y en derecho decenas de disputas entre estados", dijo. 
Agregó que en el video chileno, Bachelet hace referencia a un espíritu de integración y de diálogo con Bolivia y expresó su coincidencia con esas ideas. 
"Invocó a su sensibilidad (de Bachelet) y la del pueblo chileno cuyos representantes pidieron mar para Bolivia con soberanía, ayer en Palacio de Gobierno de La Paz, para hacer realidad espíritu de hermandad y de proyección de ambas naciones en este siglo XXI, que se logrará cuando las palabras se conviertan en actos de voluntad y de buena fe", afirmó.

Sorry, I don't have time to translate. If you don't read Spanish, the quick version from Morales is "you're full of crap."

And what about the timing? Bolivia filed its case with the Hague in 2013, delivered documents earlier this year, and it will take years to sort out. The latest move in the case was in July 2014, when the court told Bolivia it had until November 2014 to respond to the Chilean argument that the court had no jurisdiction. I suppose this is some early spin, though I do wonder how many people see such a video.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Blocking Venezuela from UN Security Council

The drumbeat to try and deny Venezuela the rotating seat on the UN Security Council suffers from many logical deficiencies. I wrote about this before. It would be a terrible idea for the Obama administration to expend any political capital trying to accomplish it.

Why?

1. Latin America agreed in 2006 to take turns. It is Venezuela's turn. The U.S. would therefore have to assert publicly that Latin American agreements are null and void if it doesn't approve.

2. Given #1, the chances of success are slim to none. A failure for no reason hurts the U.S.

3. Given #1 and #2, success would require such massive maneuvering that the U.S. would find it harder to achieve more important goals (e.g. construction of international coalitions instead of unilateral action) later.

4. Having allies in that position doesn't necessarily work out well. Remember that Chile and Mexico blocked the Bush administration in 2003. The Bush administration's strongarm tactics backfired very badly.

5. Having adversaries in that position doesn't necessarily work out badly. Venezuela is replacing Argentina, which has never been friendly and is in a bitter dispute with U.S. courts but hasn't somehow used the Security Council for nefarious purposes.

If you support the effort to block Venezuela, you have to accept the fact that you advocate failing and losing influence for short-term symbolic reasons. That seems not to be a good use of political capital.





Friday, October 3, 2014

Samper Enters the Venezuela Fray

The crisis in Venezuela has become increasingly entangled with Colombian politics. While they were presidents, Hugo Chávez and Alvaro Uribe sniped at each other constantly. At a 2010 summit they even almost brawled, with Raúl Castro (of all people) calming things down. After leaving the presidency, Uribe has been on a Twitter rampage, often tying the FARC to the Venezuelan government and blaming Juan Manuel Santos. There is even a birther movement claiming Maduro was born in Colombia! More recently, the Venezuelan government constantly blames violence on the Colombian right.

Now there is a new twist. Former Colombian President Ernesto Samper is blaming the murder of Robert Serra on Colombian paramilitaries. In other words, the accusations usually came from Venezuela, but not they're also coming from a Colombian. As you might guess, the Venezuelan press ate this up. Especially since Samper is the new Secretary-General of UNASUR and therefore has an international platform, this Venezuela-Colombia tangle will get more attention. Uribe has responded to Maduro, but I have not seen him respond to Samper. As it turns out, Samper has poked fun at Uribe for all this tweeting, so now may become the recipient of it.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Presidential Approval in Latin America 2014

Consulta Mitofsky put together a report on Latin American presidential approval based on national polls. Some thoughts:

1. As always, forget ideology. The populist left is both the most (Correa, Morales) and least (Maduro, Fernández) popular.

2. On average, Central American presidents are more popular than those in North or South America. That's about the definition of "counterintuitive."

3. When Barack Obama and Dilma Rousseff meet, at least we know they have one thing in common, which is that they similarly unpopular. Both can laugh at Stephen Harper.

4. Danilo Medina of the Dominican Republic has Alvaro Uribe-type numbers, with 89%. Even economists like him.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Berating Panama for Inviting Cuba

Senator Robert Menendez just published a letter he sent to Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela, berating him for inviting Cuba to next year's Summit of the Americas. I assume this is really aimed at a domestic audience, but this type of public calling out isn't productive for U.S.-Latin American relations.

As Menendez writes:

At the Third Summit of the Americas in 2001, the democratically-elected leaders assembled in Quebec, Canada stated that “the maintenance and strengthening of the rule of law and strict respect for the democratic system are […] an essential condition of our presence at this and future Summits. Consequently, any unconstitutional alteration or interruption of the democratic order in a state of the Hemisphere constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to the participation of that state's government in the Summit of the Americas process.” 

The Government of Cuba remains this hemisphere’s must enduring dictatorship, having deprived the people of Cuba of democratic rule for more than a half century.  To this day, the Cuban Government continues to deny its citizens their most fundamental political and human rights, and criminalizes all forms of free expression, free association, and dissent in the country.  The Government of Cuba fails to meet even the most minimal standard of democratic governance required for its participation at the Summit of the Americas.

President Obama will now have to decide whether this merits boycotting the summit. I can't imagine Panama backing down, and the only other solution would be if for some reason Cuba decided not to attend. But Panama is actively courting Cuba to come.

My hunch is that before long we will start hearing public calls for such a boycott. At that point Obama has to decide whether he cares about the political fallout from ignoring those calls, which would mostly entail accusations of being soft on dictatorships (which will inevitably get tied to being too soft on Assad, etc., etc.). [Incidentally, the boycotters will not discuss whether the U.S. should use the same logic with, say, Saudi Arabia.]

I suppose this could also be seen as an issue for the 2016 presidential election, given the strong feelings of at least some Cuban Americans in Florida. But I have a hard time believing that participation in a summit will still generate such strong sentiment over a year later. In any case, as time goes on, Cuban Americans are looking more like the average voter and do not vote based solely on U.S. Cuba policy.

Attending the summit may not yield a lot, but it will at the very least avoid digging a deeper hole. The United States has isolated itself badly in the region with regard to Cuba, and our strategy has failed miserable for many years. I assume boycott supporters will argue that it would be a potent symbol of standing with the Cuban people, but right now we're not doing them any good.

Further, there is plenty of criticism of the OAS in the United States, arguing that it should be strengthened and improved, but not attending the summit will ironically undermine it even more, while sending signals that Latin America should move on without U.S. participation.

This is one fairly rare occasion when I agree with Andres Oppenheimer, who says Obama should attend but find a prominent way to push Cuba on human rights. We're in a deep enough hole already.

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Kissinger and Cuba

Henry Kissinger wanted to attack Cuba in 1976 because Fidel Castro invaded Angola (here is the link to the documents at the National Security Archive--as always, the documents are fascinating). This is all coming from the new book by Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande new book, Back Channel to Cuba, which looks great.

There is so much here. It's Henry Kissinger in all his glory, with threats, exaggerations, and vanity. Some things in particular struck me.

First, Kissinger was offended that Cuba invaded just as the U.S. was negotiating better relations, and he couldn't understand it. This reminded me of Nicolás Maduro, where suddenly he'll shift from "I want to improve relations" to kicking some U.S. official out. In fact, Castro did not and Maduro does not want fully normalized relations because it removes an important domestic foil for them.

Second, in all of the talks about normalization, the Cubans keep repeating that ending the embargo is the only way to really get things going. Since the U.S. negotiators wouldn't promise that, in a sense they were fairly doomed from the start anyway. Lawrence Eagleburger quickly catches on that the Cubans are differentiating between discussions, which they are happy to pursue, and negotiations, which they are not.

Third, Kissinger's "pipsqueak" comment falls perfectly within the history of U.S.-Cuban relations. Lars Schoultz wrote an entire book (That Infernal Little Cuban Republic) examining the frustration of successive U.S. officials that this tiny country was not succumbing to U.S. pressure. During the Cold War, this became a question of credibility--if a tiny country could resist us, then we look weak.


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Brazil Election and the Latin American Left

Earlier this month I noted how both Marina Silva and Dilma Rousseff favored moving closer to the United States. Silva also favored pushing Cuba on human rights. And it seems she is making the left nervous. See this op-ed by Emir Sader, reprinted at Telesur.

It's a little strange to read, with Rousseff given the role of a radical who is fighting for Latin American independence. Silva is the U.S. toady and Cardoso clone, and the campaign is the epitome of the fight between social justice and neoliberalism. Plus, Silva is not sufficiently what you might call "pro-institutions that exclude the United States":

Las dos –Dilma y Marina– tienen significados radicalmente opuestos. Dilma, la continuidad y profundización de las trasformaciones realizadas por el gobierno Lula y por su propio gobierno. La consolidación y extensión de los acuerdos de integración regional que Brasil impulsa, del Mercosur a los Brics, pasando por Unasur, Celac, Banco del Sur y Consejo Suramericano de Defensa.

It made me wonder what the Venezuelan and Cuban governments think of this race. They may well see the stakes this high as well. Silva has in fact received pushback for her Cuba comments. Everyone is trying to guess what diplomatic direction she might take.

This reminds me a bit of other elections, such as Peru, where speculation raged about Ollanta Humala. In 2011 Greg Grandin wrote, "Add Peru to the list of Latin American countries that have turned left." That meant moving more toward Brazil and away from the United States.

In terms of foreign policy, Humala’s election is another victory for Brazil in its contest with Washington for regional influence. If Fujimori had won, she would have aligned Peru politically with Washington and economically with US and Canadian corporations.

Three years later, Peru is joining the Pacific Alliance and will be part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership,

In Brazil, we'll have to wait and see. Rousseff has rebounded so this may all be moot.

politic channel

politic channel

Monday, September 29, 2014

Making the Colombia Peace Talks Public

Via Adam Isacson, here are all the documents associated with the negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC. One point he makes is how reasonable the proposals seem to be. In the document on drugs, for example, there is careful discussion of rural development, voluntary crop substitution, technical support, protection of the environment, a focus on public health, judicial reform, and the like. It's ambitious, yes, but a tremendous step forward.

In fact, showing that fact is really the main reason they decided to go public with what are obviously very sensitive and fluid proposals. Here's the public statement:

Sin embargo, persisten todo tipo de especulaciones sobre lo acordado. Especulaciones que son producto unas veces del desconocimiento de los comunicados y los informes, y otras de una intención clara de desinformar a la opinión pública.
Quick and dirty translation:

However, all kinds of speculation persist about the agreements. This speculation is sometimes the product of a lack of knowledge about the communications and reports, and sometimes from a clear intention to mislead public opinion.

The point is to counter criticism, especially from Alvaro Uribe. He fired back yesterday, saying the plans somehow were giving in to terrorism and that they were intentionally complex so that they would never be fulfilled. He'll never be satisfied, of course, but now everyone can take their own look and come to their own conclusions. He'll be fighting a more uphill rhetorical battle as a result.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Explaining Sluggish Growth in Latin America

The Brookings Institute has a short and gloomy analysis of economic performance in Latin America. They base the gloom on the fact that Latin American economic growth is sluggish right now even though the "external environment" is very favorable, whereas previous dips corresponding with poor external conditions and the economies recovered when those conditions improved.

Here's the chart they base the argument on:




This is really a classic case of confusing correlation and causation. "External environment" is defined very narrowly and indeed arbirtrarily as a few major crises. Those crises fit the argument, but in the absence of testing other possibilities, we can only say there is correlation, not causation.

Most prominently, we know Latin America depends heavily on commodities. We also know China has been buying commodities. Yet in the past few years China's growth is slowing. It is therefore reasonable to hypothesize that the current sluggishness stems from that. It's correlation until we do more work to show causation, but it's at least more precise than their analysis.

Along similar lines, since Latin America exports commodities we need also look at commodity prices. As it turns out, corn and soy are at four year lows. This would take much more work, but we could hypothesize that dropping commodity prices (or dig down and specify what commodities in what countries) are causing weak economic growth.

Their analysis could be right. Maybe. I feel there are plenty of ignored independent variables that likely do a better job of explaining the dependent variable of growth rates. You don't know until you test them, and if you don't test them at all, then you don't have much of an analytical foundation.

Friday, September 26, 2014

SOUTHCOM Roundtable

I participated in a policy roundtable at U.S. Southern Command focusing on the positives and negatives of U.S. policy toward Latin America in the past decade. That included writing a 5-7 page paper based on our presentations--I am polishing up mine, and I think they're eventually going to be posted on the website of FIU's Latin America and Caribbean Center.

The thrust of my comments was the U.S. actually is seen positively in Latin America. There are numerous studies showing popular opinion in this direction, and in Brazil you have a president and left-leaning candidate both saying they want to improve relations. So there is tremendous potential. But on certain issues--esp. drugs, immigration, and Cuba--we see a disjuncture between strategies employed and policy goals we want to achieve. In large part because of domestic politics, the U.S. is inflexible on these issues (I cite, for example, Bolivia's alternative drug strategies that show promise but the U.S. government rejects) and that isolates us.

At any rate, there was a lot of interesting discussion that I am still chewing on. As I was thinking during my trip home, I wonder how to figure out a "Goldilocks" policy. We do not want zero attention to Latin America but we also do not want too much crisis-ridden attention. What we want is mid-range, proactive attention. That may or may not be politically feasible.

On a different note, it struck me how many Latin Americanists are on Twitter--practically all the participants except General Kelly himself. And after years of communicating through social media (I think not long after I started blogging 8+ years ago) I finally met Boz in person. He is the latest in an amazingly long list of Latin Americanists I've come to know through blogging and tweeting.






Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Venezuela's Gold

It sounds almost medieval. People want a look at Venezuela's $15 billion in gold to provide assurance for investment. From B of A economist Francisco Rodriguez, who got to see it:

In a Sept. 23 note to clients, Rodriguez said the “rare” visit was “largely symbolic yet reassuring.” 
“It’s not that the majority of the people doubt that the gold is there,” he said over the telephone. “But it’s one of these things that linger, something that’s nagging you and makes you wonder: What if it’s not?”

This can easily be spun as conspiratorial. The crazed fascist right spreads rumors about whether there is in fact any gold. Yet Rodriguez is one of the people refuting Ricardo Huasmann's suggestion that Venezuela should default.

Oil prices are falling, economic reforms aren't happening, while perception of risk is increasing and so it's getting more expensive for Venezuela to borrow. Outside of the Venezuelan government, it seems harder and harder to find optimistic views of the economy (not even from the Center for Economic and Policy Research). The "glass half full" argument is just "with oil they won't default."

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Pacific Alliancing

Michelle Bachelet, Juan Manuel Santos, Enrique Peña Nieto, and Ollanta Humala have a joint op-ed about the Pacific Alliance. Its basic thrust is that the free movement of goods and people will improve welfare.

One interesting point to consider is that both Bachelet and Humala were bashed when they took office for being leftists (remarkably, this was true even just recently for Bachelet). Santos, meanwhile, is center-right but bashed by his predecessor for, among other things, being willing to reach out to the left. So all the easy ideological labels don't work too well.

This is also notable for the "losing Latin America" argument I've periodically tried to counter. A majority of Latin American countries are market-oriented, which has consistently been a U.S. policy goal. Like it or not, it's reality. The Pacific Alliance is a good example of how Latin American countries can actually come together in pursuit of something the U.S. favors but is not directing. That's hardly "losing." It just means that leading is not synonymous with directing.





Monday, September 22, 2014

College Costs and State Legislatures

Major kudos to economist Susan Dynarski for articulating what many of us in public universities see up close. In short, the reason tuition has been increasing so much is that state legislatures are paying less and less per student.

In 1988, state legislatures gave their public colleges an average of $8,600 a student. Students contributed an additional $2,700 in tuition, which gets us to a total of $11,300. By 2013, states were kicking in just $6,100, while students were contributing $5,400; this gets us to a total of $11,500. 
As far as students are concerned, public tuition has doubled. As far as public colleges are concerned, funding is flat.  
At public colleges, then, the explanation for rising tuition prices isn’t spiraling costs. The costs are the same, but the burden of paying those costs has shifted from state taxpayers to students.

The last point is really important. It is common to hear about rich presidents, too many assistant provosts, extravagant dorms, and the like, ignoring the question of state funding entirely. Some of these arguments have merit, but they are not the core problem (and, in fact, increased oversight demands sometimes requires new administrative positions we'd rather not be forced to create, but the paperwork is literally overwhelming otherwise). The most pressing problem is that state legislatures too often just don't want to provide the necessary funding. Therefore the burden goes to the student.

She goes on to note how President Obama's ideas about using ratings will not work too well, in large part because there is such a huge difference in-state and out-of-state tuition. If you think one state system to too expensive, you can't go to another state and get a deal unless you become a resident.

Well worth a read--I hope it gets traction.

h/t Tyler Cowen

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Trade Within Latin America

Shannon O'Neil notes the increase in "South-South" trade, meaning between Latin American countries. Two points in particular are worth briefly expanding on:

First, it is true that trade with China with increasing. But so is trade with a lot of countries. If you cherry pick China numbers only, then you end up with all the op-eds about China gaining power (she does not actually make this point--it's just my pet peeve). When you look at the bigger picture, what you see is diversification, which is a positive development. As she notes, Latin America has more to gain with intra-regional trade than with China.

Second, the glass half empty part of the equation is that trade diversification is not the same as product diversification. While it's good to have more diverse trading partners, it's not as valuable in the long-term when you're exporting soy (or whatever) to all of them.





Thursday, September 18, 2014

Richard Blanco's For All Of Us, One Today

I read Richard Blanco's For All Of Us, One Today, which is a short memoir of the 2012 Inaugural Poet. I came away with two impressions. One, he's a great poet. His poem América, for example, is too cool. Second, what a nice guy. He's committed to expressing what it means to be American and an immigrant, with an unjaded wonder.

As he grapples with writing an inaugural poem, he asks himself if he truly loves America:

I discovered that yes, I truly loved America, but not with a blind love or blind patriotism. Rather, with a love that's much like loving another person, a love that demands effort, asks us to give and take and forgive and constantly examine promises spoken and unspoken (p. 32).


What a great way to describe "love of country," which otherwise is too often a blind thing.

What I also liked was how his Cuban family revered poets, yet Americans don't. He notes how in school he never anything by a living poet. I saw myself there because I am not really into poetry, perhaps mostly because I don't have any exposure.




Marina Silva and Foreign Policy

Marina Silva said in an interview that she would seek improved ties with the United States and also would push Cuba harder on democracy and human rights.

In a wide-ranging, hour-long interview, Silva said that as president she would seek bilateral trade deals and better relations with the U.S. and Europe, and would push for improved human rights in allies such as Cuba. 
Asked whether she would continue Brazil's strong investment in and political support for regimes like Cuba, Venezuela, China and Iran, Silva said that dialogue is essential with each — but that her personal convictions mean Brazil would be more vocal in pushing human rights. 
"The best way to help the Cuban people is by understanding that they can make a transition from the current regime to democracy, and that we don't need to cut any type of relations," she said. "It's enough that we help through the diplomatic process, so that these (human rights) values are pursued.
Both of those are nice to hear. Dilma Rousseff has already been smoothing over relations with the U.S., so it appears that U.S.-Brazilians will improve no matter who wins. At least as long as there are no more revelations of counterproductive U.S. behavior.
Further, it is refreshing to hear this about Cuba, which is too rarely heard around Latin America. It is entirely possible to engage a country while also saying it should be more democratic and respect the human rights of its own people. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Latinos and the NC Senate Race

Reporters from News Channel 14 just came to my office to ask some questions about the Latino vote. Of course, that prompted me to try and get my facts straight.

Kay Hagan has been polling well recently (up 3-6% or so) against Thom Tillis, with the added factor that Libertarian Sean Haugh is likely drawing more Tillis-leaning voters than Hagan-leaning (in May 2014 he polled at 5%).

As of today, Latinos constitute 1.9% of registered voters in North Carolina (and currently only about a quarter of Latinos in NC are eligible to vote at all). Latinos vote in lower numbers than other racial/ethnic groups, and this is a midterm election to boot. Further, 37% of Latino registered voters are 18-29 years of age, so less likely to vote in the first place.

However, in a close race--as this one is--any push is important. The Latin American Coalition is hoping to register 7,500 new voters for this election. That's no easy task (for context, 123,763 Latinos are registered to vote right now) but if they can do it they may well make a difference.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Cuba Embargo and MLB

Dara Lind has a fascinating piece at Vox about Major League Baseball, Cuba, and human smuggling, which has gained a lot of attention because of Yasiel Puig's harrowing experience. U.S. immigration law and MLB draft policy have established very particular incentives:

A Cuban player can't negotiate a contract with a major-league team while he's in Cuba, thanks to the embargo — and the Cuban government's tendency to imprison anyone who's a threat to defect. But that doesn't mean he's not allowed to negotiate a contract with a major-league team somewhere else. 
The MLB says that a player who's established residency in a third country (most often Mexico or the Dominican Republic) is allowed to negotiate with any major league team. So instead of working out a contract with only one team, like players who go directly to the US do, a player in a third country is able to put all 30 major-league teams in a bidding war against each other.

So you get out of Cuba, but then get smuggled to another Latin American country to negotiate your MLB contract. The smugglers are increasingly tied to Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations. Once an MLB team finally signs the player, they're directly or indirectly paying criminals.

As it turns out, the problem has a simple solution:

If the US government lifted its embargo with Cuba entirely, it would solve the problem — major league teams would be allowed to sign players who were living in Cuba, thus allowing them to come to the US with a job (and a visa) in hand. That doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon.

Simple in logic, that is, not politically. But perhaps there is even a way to achieve it within the context of the embargo:

But Rodriques of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime thinks that the US government could actually create a limited exception to the embargo that would apply solely to athletes. It made an exception in the 1980s for artistic and literary materials, so it's not totally unprecedented. If the US did that, it would eliminate the need for the "special license," so it would make the process for Cuban players much more straightforward — and safer.

She doesn't expand on that but I assume she means MLB teams could negotiate directly with players while they're on Cuba. But how would that work unless the Cuban government gave permission (and presumably took its own cut?).

Monday, September 15, 2014

Indigenous in Bolivia

One reviewer of my 2nd edition U.S. and Latin American Relations textbook referenced the 2012 Bolivian census to get a more accurate percentage of Bolivians who are of Aymara or Quechua descent. Reading it, though, I realized it's not terribly useful because it only asks respondents over the age of 15 how they self-identify. That leaves out just around 1/3 of the population.

I understand we might say that children 15 and younger are not in a position to self-identify, but without them how do we make definitive conclusions about the entire population, especially one so young?

Really, the more you look, the more obviously difficult it is to get a firm grip on the percentage of the population that is "indigenous." In 2001, for example, some 20% of the Bolivian population self-identified as indigenous despite not having any "recorded ethnolinguistic marker" that would suggest they likely would be.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Progress on 2nd Edition of U.S. and Latin American Relations

Continuing on my year-long periodic posts (the last one was in July) on doing the revisions/additions to the 2nd edition of U.S. and Latin American Relations, I've received the three anonymous external reviews and they are all positive. They all also have many suggestions and corrections--14 pages single-spaced in all. The peer review process in academia is often screwy and even mean, but these comments are really helpful.

And humbling. If you have someone extremely knowledgeable reading (and doing so thoroughly), then he/she will find the errors. This gets down to noting, for example, that the Sandino rebellion started in 1927, not 1926 as I had written, because in 1926 he was a general fighting a civil war but it had not yet become an anti-imperialist war. Obviously, these observations improve the quality of the book immensely. I do get frustrated that I made them in the first place!

At any rate, my goal is to get all of these revisions completed within four weeks.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Venezuela Likely to Take Security Council Seat

It's quite possible that Venezuela will assume a two-year rotating seat on the UN Security Council. In 2006 Hugo Chávez tried as hard as he could to get it, but the U.S. helped push Guatemala, then accept Panama as a compromise (I blogged a lot about that circus as it happened). I disagree with this logic about why Venezuela is not being challenged this time around:

The action reflects a decade-long shift in the region away from the United States. Conservative leaders from Peru to El Salvador that in 2006 had no fear of picking a fight with Chavez have since been voted out of office. Even nations that differ with Venezuela’s policies, such as Chile and Colombia, want to avoid a confrontation that harkens back to the polarized politics of the Cold War, when meddling by Washington was frequent.

This is the pat answer of the day--Latin America is moving away from the U.S. That logic ignores the following:

1. After 2006, Latin American countries agreed to take turns. It is now Venezuela's turn. If that was the agreement, then that was the agreement.

Following that display of disunity, regional governments agreed in private to alternate representation in a certain order. Under those procedures, it’s now Venezuela’s turn.

2. The current president of the U.S. is Obama, not Bush. Obama is far less confrontational and in this case must go up against the fact that a regional agreement way back then put Venezuela in this position now.

3. There is no evidence that either Chile or Colombia base their foreign policy decisions on trying not to harken back to the Cold War.

BTW, I happened to see on Twitter that Boz was also writing a post, with similar logic. He makes an additional point worth considering:

Another important note left out of the AP report: Venezuela will be replacing Argentina. While Venezuela's rhetoric will probably be sharper, their voting won't be that far off from the seat's current occupant. As the shift from Argentina to Venezuela isn't shifting the balance of voting on the UNSC much, it shouldn't worry the US.

So this will not be some sudden shift.

One last thought: at least in this case Nicolás Maduro is showing more acumen than his mentor by remaining quiet and avoiding the heated public rhetoric. That strategy would have backfired.

ISIL and the U.S. Border

In response to a question from John McCain, a DHS official said that some ISIS "adherents" were saying on Facebook and Twitter that they should infiltrate the U.S.-Mexico border.

 Francis Taylor, under secretary for intelligence and analysis at DHS, told senators during a hearing that ISIL supporters are known to be plotting ways to infiltrate the United States through the border. 
“There have been Twitter, social media exchanges among ISIL adherents across the globe speaking about that as a possibility,” Taylor told Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) in response to a question about “recent reports on Twitter and Facebook of messages that would urge infiltration into the U.S. across our southwestern border.” 
“Certainly any infiltration across our border would be a threat,” Taylor said, explaining that border security agents are working to tighten measures that would prevent this from taking place. 
“I’m satisfied we have the intelligence and the capability on our border that would prevent that activity,” Taylor said.

Hmm. They said this publicly, knowing full well that plenty of people, including those in the United States government, would read it. They are either a) trying to spark a reaction; or b) so stupid that clearly they don't have the capability anyway.

This is never going to end. There will always be terrorist groups trying to get the U.S. riled up to overreact. It's just the names that change.

Such an operation is harder than you think. You have to get into Mexico and get to the border region without attracting attention, which means being fluent in Mexican Spanish. Then you have to avoid getting the attention of all the many individuals, gangs, etc. involved in getting people across the border, all of whom are talking a lot. There is no guarantee of any kind that they'll view you kindly, even with bribery. Even then they may rat on you. Then you have to traverse the same awful lands that have killed thousands of other people.

As with many other issues, this one falls under the category of "stay vigilant and don't overreact."

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

War and Revolution in Russia, 1914-1922

I read Christopher Read's War and Revolution in Russia, 1914-1922. I've been periodically reading about WWI when I have a chance given the centennial. The book is a synthesis and tries to place the revolution more in the context of WWI.

Funny thing, I really enjoyed it but got hung up a bit on chapter one. Among other things it included an in-text Wikipedia reference and this sentence: "Perhaps if the horror that was about to be unleashed had been more widely understood more would have been done to prevent it" (p. 20). Well, yes.

Get past that, though, and you have a nicely written, concise book that is widely accessible to people like me who do not know the literature. What you see first is the amazing incompetence of the Tsar. I wish Read might have said a little more why he thinks the Tsar believed the war was necessary, considering that the quick Russian mobilization was an important factor in pushing the war along.

Then the Tsar just resigns abruptly and Russia suffers a first period of uncertainty while the Bolsheviks figure out what to do. Reading Vladimir Lenin's writings in that context shows how much his theory was just responding to events, so that his "truths" changed all the time as deemed necessary. Events and necessity drove theory. One thing I hadn't really known was that immediately after the Tsar was deposed, popular support for the war remained high. It took a while for the Bolsheviks to change that view.

Finally, the Bolsheviks begin to consolidate power after the October Revolution and Lenin discards his previous truths, then adopts new ones that center on oppression, repression, and centralism. It's a good read, even though it's a serious downer to think about what came next.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Kissinger on Chile

I happened to be in the car and hear a bit of an NPR interview with Henry Kissinger (not sure about the link, though here is a link to what I think is another part of the interview). My ears perked up at one exchange, and then I was disappointed in interviewer and interviewee.

The topic was realism vs. idealism. Point blank, Kissinger was asked about "engineering the coup in Chile." What had been a pretty smooth interview suddenly became confrontational. Kissinger's main response was that a) this happened a long time ago; b) in a short interview there was no way to get at the details, which are being manipulated for political reasons; and c) we needed to always remember that policy makers are serious people doing their best for the country.

Unfortunately, it was a missed opportunity. No one in the United States created the coup. The coup was domestic. To say otherwise is to pretend that Chilean politics had almost nothing to do with it. The most important thing the Nixon administration did was to send clear signals that if a coup succeeded, it would receive immediate support (I write about this in more detail earlier this year). That was an important part of the puzzle but it is not synonymous with "engineering." I would've preferred a question that asked why the U.S. supported the destruction of democracy when we claimed to revere it.

But Kissinger's answer was mostly non-sequiturs. Who cares how long ago it was? You don't get a pass just because you supported destroying democracy a long time ago. And who cares what kind of interview it is? If you alternate views of the facts, then give them. Finally, the third part--which he repeated--is scary. So if a policy maker is serious, then outcome doesn't matter?

I have to figure this last point has become his primary justification for the most controversial policy decisions. If he meant well (which of course can be defined in any way) and was serious about it then if things went wrong, people died, etc. then he has no real responsibility.

SECOLAS 2015 in Charleston

If you study Latin America, you should come to Charleston March 12-14, 2015 for the Southeastern Council of Latin American Studies. Always a great conference--I've been going for years. Click here for the Facebook page, which has the Call for Papers and other info. If you have questions, feel free to contact me as well.

Venezuela Default Headline

Bloomberg's headline "Venezuelan Default Suggested by Harvard Economist" is extraordinarily misleading. A much more accurate version would be "Maduro Foe Makes Fun of the Government." It's Ricardo Hausmann, who was Minister of Planning when Hugo Chávez tried to overthrow his government, and he ends the interview by saying that he would resign if he were Maduro. The headline suggests some objective professor with Harvard gravitas.

At least the article itself lays out a bit more than that--Hausmann's argument is that the government should default and use the funds to alleviate shortages, saying that to do otherwise is "moral bankruptcy." Another economist, Francisco Rodríguez argues that default doesn't get at the real problem:

“Venezuela has more than enough foreign currency earnings to both ensure an adequate supply of imports and meet its foreign obligations,” Rodriguez said in a Sept. 5 note to clients. “Current scarcity levels are caused not by the need to service on the country’s external debt but by the massive distortions to relative prices that have resulted from the country’s tight price and exchange controls. Resolving these relative price distortions, rather than defaulting, is the key to restoring Venezuela’s macroeconomic health.”

Debt might be a problem, then, but paying it off is not the source of consumer good scarcity. What you need is to tackle the economic incentives that encourage smuggling, hoarding, and producing (or, as the case might be, not producing).

Monday, September 8, 2014

Renewing the Cuba Embargo

President Obama has renewed the embargo against Cuba for another year:

Under section 101(b) of Public Law 95-223 (91 Stat. 1625; 50 U.S.C. App. 5(b) note), and a previous determination on September 12, 2013 (78 FR 57225, September 17, 2013), the exercise of certain authorities under the Trading With the Enemy Act is scheduled to terminate on September 14, 2014.  
I hereby determine that the continuation for 1 year of the exercise of those authorities with respect to Cuba is in the national interest of the United States.

The "previous determination" simply refers to making the exact same decision last year with the exact same wording. And next month, as always, the United Nations will vote to condemn it, and the only countries who will not do so are the United States, Israel, and one or two very small Pacific states.

There is not much new to say about all this. There is really no reasonable logic behind the "national interest" thesis. If anything, the opposite is true. Our treatment of Cuba strengthens the Castro regime and isolates us in the region. How can that be construed as "in the national interest"?

Friday, September 5, 2014

Argentina: We're Not Venezuela!

So the Argentine legislature is debating a price fixing law, but the Fernández administration is trying to reassure everyone it won't be like Venezuela:

“The fact that there’s a law doesn’t mean it will be applied like it is in Venezuela or that the consequences will be like those of Venezuela,” Commerce Secretary Augusto Costa said in a telephone interview from Buenos Aires yesterday.

The Argentine government clearly does not want to be seen as copying Venezuela (despite the fact that Nicolás Maduro's son visited Argentina to talk all about it) which has harebrained schemes of fingerprinting and claims of conspiracies. Still, inflation is 38% (at least by one measure--this is a constant matter of debate) and the government figures they can attack prices. Good luck with that!

In my Latin American politics class, I bring up the idea of incentives very early on. Prices are obviously a problem, but the core issue revolves around the incentives that government policies generate which drive prices up in the first place. Fighting prices per se is mostly attacking symptoms rather than disease. For example, currently farmers have an incentive to hoard soybeans priced in dollars because selling them and getting pesos is too risky.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

My Losing Latin America Op-Ed

There are so many articles about how the United States is "losing" Latin America, and I've been disagreeing with them for so long that I finally got around to writing an op-ed on it. So click over to Al Jazeera and check it out.

How to Spice Up an Iran Conspiracy Article

Here's a lengthy Iran-Latin America conspiracy article, which is more or less identical to many others over the years.* The basic recipe, which you can spice up in various ways, is as follows:

1. Discuss how Iranian leaders have spoken to leftist leaders in Latin America
2. Refer to 1992 bombing in Argentina
3. Paste together circumstantial and unconnected evidence
4. Criticize those who do not believe Iran is a threat in Latin America, including the State Department
5. Suggest taking "action," preferably "before it's too late."

The current article used the following extra spice:

1. Bring in Machiavelli
2. Talk a lot about 9/11
3. Discuss 1979 hostages in Iran

* One of my favorites is the one asserting "the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence."

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Dissatisfied Mexico

The Pew Research Global Attitudes Project has some data on Mexico that caught my eye for a few reasons. The headline is that Enrique Peña Nieto has slipping approval ratings, but there are other, more interesting, bits.

For example, Mexicans aren't happy, and haven't been happy for quite some time.



You can't even blame the drug war because in 2002 (four years before Felipe Calderón declared it) Mexicans were more dissatisfied. This period also encompasses much of the democratic period (e.g. post 2000) but that didn't help either (or we might hypothesize that it made things worse!). And this is also a period of much exaltation of the growing Mexican middle class. In short, there's a lot of food for thought here.

Next, there is a sharp uptick in the number of Mexicans without strong connections to the United States.



This surprises me. Migration has slowed down but was strong for years so we should expect plenty of people to stay connected. I might be tempted to dismiss it as a blip but Pew got those results both in 2013 and in 2014. Remittances have slipped a bit, though this is also strongly tied to the U.S. economy. Yet they're still over $20 billion, so now we have more money going to an even smaller number of people in Mexico?

There's other stuff too--it's worth checking out.

Addressing Grade Inflation

UNC Chapel Hill has come up with a new way to address grade inflation. From now on, transcripts will provide additional context:
Next to a student’s grade, the record will include the median grade of classmates, the percentile range and the number of students in the class section. Another new measure, alongside the grade point average, is the schedule point average. A snapshot average grade for a student’s mix of courses, the SPA is akin to a sports team’s strength of schedule. 
The nuanced transcripts will provide more information for graduate schools and employers, who should be better able to judge the difference between good and excellent performance. An A- in psychology might not look so swell when the average grade in the class is an A. On the other hand, an A- in physics looks downright impressive if the class average is a C+.




Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/2014/08/30/4106626_at-unc-chapel-hill-the-truth-about.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

My first reaction is that this will look so complicated that employers will continue to look directly at the bottom line, namely overall GPA, to the extent that they scrutinize the transcript at all. It may well be valuable to Ph.D. programs trying to decide who they will admit. Those are, however, a very small minority of all undergraduates.

Plus, it may well have a negative impact, as students will swap stories about what classes have the highest average grades, which of course immediately are more desirable if you want to pad your GPA.

Indiana University used to do it, but stopped because of a software change. Dartmouth College and Cornell University include median grades on transcripts. Cornell used to publish the information online, but quit in 2011 after a study revealed that enrollment spiked in classes with a median grade of A.

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/2014/08/30/4106626_at-unc-chapel-hill-the-truth-about.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

What's striking here is that the universities mentioned in the article seem to have abandoned the idea of asking professors why they are grading so high in the first place. There are vague references to students demanding more, but why not say no? I might be missing something because I rarely have the experience of students believing they deserve a good grade on everything. Yes, I get plenty of "well, I NEED a B in this class," though this is usually born of desperation rather than narcissism.  But this story is aimed at elite universities which seem to have a student body that feels more entitled.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Why to Support Evo Morales

Tyler Cowen explains why he supports the government of Evo Morales, with nine separate points. Since he is an unabashed free market advocate, it says something that he pokes through the ideology and sees a pragmatic government with broad support that has brought stability to a country that has been lacking it. This in particular should be heeded by those who label Morales as a leftist puppet and yearn for Goni or whomever.

If a Bolivian government is not strongly connected to the country’s indigenous population, that government cannot have a strong base.  Yet it will still work hard to stay in power (#2), which will mean it will resort to oppressions and distortions, with high long-run costs.  Bolivian history has seen an especially large number of coups and attempted coups, illustrating this weakness of the power base, which you can think of as the major problem in historical Bolivian public choice. 

Bolivian elites and the U.S. government alike have pretty well ignored that common sense.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Lack of Interest in Non-Intervention

I happened to buy a used book online--a 1955 book by Donald Shea, The Calvo Clause, which examines the question of intervention (or, as Calvo argued, absence of intervention) for foreign investors in Latin America (or indeed anywhere).

So this book was published at a time when U.S. policy makers were in a clearly interventionist mood and the Cold War would rage on for several more decades. As it turns out, the particular copy I got was originally from the State Department library (even with a stamp indicating the book was first received 1955 or 1956, I can't quite tell which), then subsequently withdrawn. In the back there is a check-out slip well glued in, with no evidence that there was ever any other previous slip. It was checked out a grand total of one time.




So I guess nobody in the State Department was particularly interested in learning more about Latin American ideas of non-intervention.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The U.S. Does Not Face Threats in Latin America

Matthew Dickinson makes a very good point about President Obama's foreign policy that I think is relevant to Latin America as well. In sum, so many of the challenges the U.S. faces are not clearly immediate security problems, even though many people want to frame them in that way.

Lacking a consensus regarding the severity of the threat ISIS poses makes it difficult to fashion a coherent foreign policy response. More generally, this has been the problem that has plagued Obama throughout his presidency as he has confronted a series of regional hotspots. As Braumoeller writes, “Sometimes the main actors agree on fundamental values and policies—as the Great Powers did, for a time, during the Concert of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. More often, though, no foreign policy is completely successful. What that means is that, while everyone ends up at least a little bit frustrated, no one is so dissatisfied with the status quo that they are willing to exert the effort that would be needed to change it.” As Braumoeller’s argument implicitly suggests, Obama’s foreign policy appears to lack an underlying principle in large part because the President does not appear convinced that the issues he confronts – the Ukraine separatist movement, the fight in Gaza, and now ISIS’ effort to establish a caliphate – clearly affect U.S. national interests. As Braumoeller puts it, “Simply put, the challenges that remain are not sufficiently compelling to prompt us to attempt them in the face of determined opposition.” The result is a foreign policy that appears reactive because although Obama appears unpersuaded that a stronger foreign policy response is warranted, neither does he feel free to completely disengage from each of these hotspots, particularly when the status quo is in danger of unraveling.

This fits Venezuela--not perfectly but still to a compelling degree. Despite the best efforts of some conservatives to label Chávez/Maduro as regional threats, it's hard to make that stick. Thus far Obama has decided--rightly in my opinion--not to risk alienating Latin American governments and possibly strengthening Maduro by imposing sanctions. This fits the "don't do stupid stuff" idea but also reflects a basic strategic calculation that such actions would very likely cause more harm (both to the U.S. and to Venezuelans) than good. In other words, there is not enough of a U.S. interest involved to take such risks. This then makes his administration appear rudderless.

The same logic pertains to Cuba, China's expanded trade relationships, Hezbollah, Iran, etc. that are commonly listed as threats Obama is ignoring. The fact of the matter is that the United States does not face threats from Latin America, which really should be seen as something to celebrate. There are major problems, to be sure, including the political climate in Venezuela, but the question is how much the U.S. should wield a big stick to deal with it.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Poverty Reduction in Latin America

The UN Development Program has a new study (seems to be Spanish-only) about the reduction of poverty in Latin America. It is quite optimistic, arguing that the total percentage of people in poverty dropped from 41.7% to 25.3% while the middle class grew from 21.9% to 34.3%.

As is so often the case, the trends defy easy ideological identification. Argentina, for example, is doing quite well.



This is great news. We also need to be cautious. There is some fine print, for example, such as that in seven countries informality exceeds 60%. Plus, as the study (and other studies like it) note, millions of people are at risk of falling back into poverty.

CEPAL has noted that the 2000s were good for poverty reduction, but that the trend had slowed sharply.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Venezuelans' Views of the United States

According to the Pew Research Center, in the aggregate Venezuelans have a favorable view of the United States and are not so favorable toward Cuba. As you might guess, ideology explains a lot:


This goes along with other studies showing how currently the United States is seen quite favorably across the region. It also shows the skepticism moderates in Venezuela have about Cuba's role in the country.

Russia's Sanctions and Argentina

As Russia faces sanctions, it is looking to Latin America to fill its food gap. For example, the Russian government predicted confidently that Argentina would double its meat exports to fill the gap. There are various interesting dynamics all coming together.

1. Argentina is especially annoyed at the United States because of the U.S. judge blocking various Argentine efforts to resolve is debt problem. Politically, then, President Fernández sees it as an opportunity to boost domestic support.

2. This is a good way to shore up Argentina's reserves, which are $29 billion versus $53 billion in 2011.

3. At the same time, the Argentine government imposes caps on exports to keep inflation down at home, so even a major beef exporter seems skeptical of the plan to boost exports to Russia. So she can appease exporters but will have to be careful about the economic impact.

Notice I did not mention a threat to the United States, Russian incursion, loss of U.S. influence, or the like. I suspect that such arguments will be coming soon, but I think this situation is best viewed in terms of careful political calculations by Cristina that will be based largely on her own domestic position.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Politics and Canonizing Oscar Romero

Tim Padgett argues that canonizing Archbishop Oscar Romero will help El Salvador heal its wounds. Mike Allison disagrees.

Recognizing Romero as a saint won't go over too well with those who see him as a communist and as a person who was leading the country down the path of revolution. The Nicaraguan Church's support for the removal of Somoza was important to convincing many Catholics to give the broad-based but Sandinista-led insurgency an opportunity. Romero wasn't at the point of throwing the Catholic Church's support behind the guerrillas (he had just supported the October 15 coup) but there was fear that he would eventually. That was unacceptable.

To the extent that I thought about it at all*, I had typically thought of canonization as a dependent rather than independent variable. In other words, politics is involved in determining whether a given person gets chosen, but being chosen doesn't create any new political effects.

I don't find Padgett's argument compelling at all--will gang members stop fighting because Romero is a saint? There are tons of saints and that hasn't stopped anyone from doing all sorts of horrible things. Following Mike's point, I think it would be interesting to research the political effects of canonization. I would hypothesize that the most likely outcome would be dialogue--it makes people talk about the person and his/her political context. But maybe that also can have a negative effect on deeply divided countries by making one side dig in more.

*not being Catholic, I find the entire process both fascinating and a bit bizarre.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Venezuela and CITGO

Bloomberg takes a highly critical look at Venezuela's efforts to sell CITGO, arguing it is yet another sign of financial problems. But this is what caught my eye:

An official for the state oil producer known as PDVSA, who asked not to be identified because he isn’t authorized to speak publicly, declined to comment on the potential divestment of the company’s Citgo assets.

So a PDVSA official isn't authorized even to say that he or she won't comment.

Fidel, Maduro, and Health Care

Nicolás Maduro came to visit Fidel Castro, who then wrote about the meeting in Granma. He dedicated a big chunk of it to Gaza, which included one particularly interesting discussion about Venezuela is sending equipment. I am trying to decide whether I am misunderstanding it.

Desde entonces los valientes pilotos venezolanos transportan su carga salvadora, que permite salvar madres, niños y adultos de la muerte. Leía hoy sin embargo un despacho de la agencia AP procedente de Venezuela, en el que se publican declaraciones de la “Asociación de Clínicas y Hospitales de Venezuela, que agrupa” a “centros de salud privados del país”, pidiendo al Gobierno que se declare una “emergencia humanitaria” para hacer frente a la “escasez de insumos, medicamentos, equipos médicos y repuestos” que, aseguran, “ponen en riesgo la vida de la población.” 
¡Qué enorme casualidad! Esta demanda se realiza precisamente cuando en la Franja de Gaza se produce el genocidio yanki-israelita de la zona más pobre y superpoblada de esa comunidad que ha vivido allí a lo largo de milenios.
Eso es lo que hace tan meritoria la conducta de Maduro y los militares y especialistas venezolanos que llevan a cabo tan ejemplar conducta ante la tragedia del pueblo hermano de Palestina. 

I am just trying to get the logic here. Fidel is referring to this AP story, which focuses on the serious shortages of medical supplies in Venezuela. The story focuses on private clinics. That, he says, coincides with shortages in Gaza, which is being attacked by Israel, backed by the United States. This, he concludes, shows how wonderful Maduro's efforts are to help out Palestinians.

My immediate reaction was that Fidel was saying that Palestinians deserved Venezuelan medicine more than Venezuelans who choose to go to private clinics. I guess because he assumes Venezuelans who go to private clinics are wealthier and therefore fascists who should be ignored?