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.


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.