Thursday, August 25, 2016

Patrick Iber's Neither Peace Nor Freedom

Patrick Iber's Neither Peace Nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America (2015) examines the intellectual struggle the U.S. and the Soviet Union waged in Cold War Latin America. More importantly, it examines how the results were unpredictable. Many people associated with the organizations did not share the views of the funders, which found them difficult to control--local interests sometimes trumped the funders. It's a very good read.

The two big players were the Soviet-funded World Peace Council (WPC) and the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF). These were, as Iber, points out, imperial projects. The people in the front organizations, however, did not feel that way. They felt, only occasionally correctly, that they were struggling on behalf of peace and liberty.

Yet all this did not mean they were "working for" the U.S. and the USSR. They were publishing and talking in ways they believed, which happened in some manner to overlap with these powerful countries. Yet sometimes they didn't overlap. This is the point that I think needs to be remembered the most. People are not necessarily just puppets, and during the Cold War many Latin Americans were trying to figure out how to get the money necessary to reach a wider audience. At the same time, if someone exposes your funding to be CIA or the Kremlin, then your credibility gets hit. That started to happen at the end of the 1960s for the CCF.

Oddly enough, the adamantly anti-Communist CCF helped encourage the Cuban revolution (with money from the CIA!) because it was anti-Batista, then of course grew disenchanted with it. Especially after the revolution, the CCF and WPC touched directly or indirectly a seemingly endless spiderweb of political and cultural organizations. In the midst of all this, the Cuban government launched its own cultural war (through the Casa de las Américas).

The cultural war in Cold War Latin America was a messy business, indeed so complicated ideologically that it led to the decline of intellectuals' influence in Latin America. Iber's book is a reminder not to assume that anyone ultimately gets what they want.


Can the FARC Win Elections?

The announcement of the finalized deal between the Colombian government and the FARC is incredibly important and historic. There is so much to sort out here, but what immediately came to my mind was a question: can the FARC attract any voters?

One of the more controversial parts of the deal are some guaranteed seats in the legislature:

Santos said Wednesday that the rebels will be granted a limited number of seats in Congress through 2018, where they will not have voting rights but can speak on matters pertaining to the implementation of the peace accords. They will be assured a minimum of five seats in Colombia's Senate and five seats in its lower house for two legislative terms starting in 2018. But then they will have to win at the ballot box, Santos said. His opponents have already savaged this concession as an outrageous giveaway to the rebels.

This makes people like me cringe because of the Chilean example (where retired military commanders got appointed senate seats) but at least they are clearly temporary and non-voting.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I liked it. Unlike, say, the FMLN, the FARC has virtually no domestic support. By now, very few Colombians support their ideology. As a result, they have an uphill battle to win voters. I could therefore imagine a scenario where elections were held where the FARC won about very few seats (or none!) which in turn could blow things up (figuratively if not literally). Now the FARC can ease into democratic governance but without unearned power. It will have a chance to engage in debate and win future voters.


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Hillary Clinton Is Like Fidel Castro (In Terms of False Illness)

The Washington Post has a story about all the diseases Hillary Clinton has been accused of having/hiding. I immediately thought of Fidel Castro, who has been rumored near death many times. He gave a speech in 1986 joking about U.S. rumors of his death. Back in 2007, the Miami Herald had one of the best headlines ever: "Vague Comments Made About Fidel Castro's Health."

Then, of course, he eventually did get sick, but U.S. intelligence still couldn't figure it out. He had terminal cancer a decade ago, and Parkinson's a year before that. We have to assume that someday he will actually die, at which point the U.S. government can say, "See, I told you so!"


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Venezuela Desperate For Higher Oil Prices

The Venezuelan government is desperate for OPEC to cut production. Its oil minister is making the rounds to find supporters.

Venezuela expects oil price of $70 per barrel as ideal to help the global financial situation, the country’s president Nicolas Maduro said last week as he tries hard to shore up support to boost oil prices, which have plunged by more than 60 per cent since 2014.

If you're wondering, oil is now about $48 a barrel.

This sort of trip is common for Venezuela. Nicolás Maduro went to Saudi Arabia in early 2015. And, of course, when OPEC did not push for higher prices Maduro blamed the United States.


Monday, August 22, 2016

Peña Nieto's "Style Errors"

It seems Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto plagiarized sizeable chunks of his law thesis. His spokesman said there were "style errors." Don't you love euphemisms? In my class, such "style errors" would have very serious consequences.

It's another self-inflicted wound for a president with a 29% approval rating. Maybe he should Google a good "mea culpa" speech and copy it. As Patrick Iber noted on Twitter:

This is indeed a perfect post for the beginning of the semester. In classes I've used the New York Times' wonderful breakdown of Senator John Walsh's plagiarized Master's thesis as well. That, incidentally, compelled him to resign so at least there's some sense of accountability.


Saturday, August 20, 2016

Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle Book 2

As I read Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, Book 2 (here is my review of book one), I kept thinking about how keeping things to ourselves is what holds civilization together. If we all said or wrote in the manner he has done, we'd all end up hating each other. Honesty is in fact not always the best policy. In large doses (like the 3,000+ pages he has written) it's even disconcerting

More so than in Book 1, Knausgaard writes in unsparing detail about the people closest to him, especially his wife Linda. It is hard to imagine a relationship holding together after such a public rendering of its most intimate and intense moments, dealing even with mental illness. We don't show these parts of ourselves to the world, and more importantly we don't expose those that we love. But Knausgaard needs to write, and so he does.

Yet the book is so fascinating precisely for these reasons. Periodically I saw myself in the narrative, sometimes laughing out loud (such as descriptions of dealing with very young children in public) but even when I couldn't really relate, I enjoyed the very deeply thought out way he describes his own feelings and actions.

It ends with him starting on book one (none of them are chronological). I'm now going to order book three. We'll see how far I go with all these.


Friday, August 19, 2016

Iran's Weak Ties to Latin America

The funny thing about the supposed Iranian influence in Latin America is that for at least the last ten years, every so often Iran feels the need to send a government official to launch a "new chapter" in relations with the region. It is doing so now.

Countries that have influence don't need to relaunch. They just launch once and then go from there. Also, countries that have influence don't need to blame Israel for the fact that all their launches fail.

Iran has been growing increasingly close to Latin America in recent years, but has accused Israel and other countries of undermining its emerging relationship with the region. “Certain regional states have also joined the Zionist regime and display a wrong image of Iran in line with Iranophobia plots,” said Takht-e-Ravanchi to Iran’s Fars news agency.

Not surprisingly, Telesur reports this uncritically without noting not just the anti-Semitism but also how ridiculous the argument is. Iran's image comes from Iran's own actions, including past terrorist attacks in Latin America.


Thursday, August 18, 2016

Venezuela Timing and the Opposition

Gabriel Hetland has an article in The Nation about Venezuela, which is a good read for several reasons. He is sympathetic to the ideals of Chavismo but clear-eyed with regard to the ways in which the government has shot itself in the foot.

Further, he has an intriguing argument:

Officially, the opposition is adamantly opposed to delaying the referendum beyond January 10. There is speculation, however, that many opposition leaders actually prefer this scenario because the next several years are likely to be exceedingly difficult no matter who is in office. If the Maduro government stays in power it will pay the price. The opposition would thus be well positioned to win the 2019 presidential election.

I'm not a fan of the passive voice with regard to this sort of thing because there is no sense at all of who is making such a speculation and who the "many" opposition leaders actually are. I see the logic here, but I am left with the question: the opposition is already well positioned to win an election, so why would it want to wait and win later when things are actually worse?


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Complicated Colombian Peace Process

Adam Isacson tweeted about a new post up at the Washington Office on Latin America's Colombia Peace site explaining the complicated referendum process for the peace deal. Here's the flow chart they put together:

And that doesn't even get at the legal and political complexities involved.

It's a great post. One part that I found particularly interesting is that over time polls show a decreasing willingness to vote "yes." One problem is that Juan Manuel Santos' popularity has dropped, in no small part because of the drop in commodity prices. It would be tragic if the vagaries of the global economy--combined with the historic Latin American economic dependency problem--played a decisive role.


Cuba's Concern About Immigration

I'm quoted in this story about Cuba's dislike of the Cuban Adjustment Act. My argument is that as Venezuela disintegrates, thus making oil scarcer, Cuba cannot afford more brain drain, like losing doctors. In general, there has been an uptick of Cuban emigration, precisely as people consider the end of the immigration law.

At this point, opponents to the law include both the Cuban government and hardcore anti-Castro members of Congress, who correctly believe that Cubans are gaming the system because they're not actually facing persecution, but rather are going back and forth. It'll end, it's just a matter of when.


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Chile's Sagging Pension System

Here's a good column in the Los Angeles Times about the privatized Chilean pension system, which is facing huge protests despite being held up for years as the model for the world.

As my friend and co-author Silvia Borzutzky has written about for years, the fees in the system (through AFPs, or Pension Fund Administrators in English) are astronomical, so the return to individuals is very low in comparative terms. Supporters of the system simply blame Chileans for not knowing enough (I am not making that up).

But what to do? Michelle Bachelet is proposing changes, but she's an extremely unpopular president and there will be legislative resistance. For the time being, it's hard to see changes being made.


Monday, August 15, 2016

Hezbollah Still Not a Major Threat in Latin America

Mike LaSusa has a good post at LobeLog on how the Hezbollah threat in Latin America is overblown.

To be sure, Latin American authorities must remain vigilant about terrorist threats. But they also must keep those threats in perspective and allocate their limited resources accordingly. Overblown claims like Levitt’s encourage countries to engage in the kind of security theater that leaves fundamental problems unaddressed and ultimately puts citizens at greater risk.

I've been repeating that basic point for a long time now with regard to U.S. policy.  Last year I wrote:

We need extremely high standards of evidence. Otherwise we do "stupid stuff." There are a lot of ill-informed but trigger-happy members of Congress and it would be a major mistake to let them dictate policy.

For years, we've seen a pattern of using weak sources to encourage a hawkish response. For many reasons, it's a bad idea.


Venezuela: At Least We're Not Syria

Rafael Ramirez, Venezuela's Ambassador to the United Nations, rejected Ban Ki-moon's assertion that there is a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.

"Hay que tener sentido de las proporciones, en el país tenemos nuestros problemas, pero no hay una crisis como en el caso de los desplazados en el Medio Oriente."

In other words, "proportion" means that Venezuelan officials no longer even try to compare themselves to other Latin American countries. They compare themselves to Syria and come out looking pretty good in comparison. But that works only if you compare yourself to Syria.


Friday, August 12, 2016

Latin America Not Good at Refining Oil

Interesting story on how Latin American oil refinery plans haven't worked out, which is helping the U.S.

From Brazil's Petroleo Brasileiro to Mexico's Petroleos Mexicanos, state oil companies have failed to complete nine projects worth at least $36.4 billion that would have supplied 1.2 million barrels of gasoline and diesel daily. U.S. refiners have stepped up to help fill the gap, with exports almost doubling in the past six years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

It doesn't even mention Venezuela, which has had all kinds of refinery problems.

None of these countries is too eager to talk about it either.

In response to a request for comment, Petrobras said decisions on the construction of new refineries will be announced as part of its next five-year investment plan. It didn't disclose when that announcement will be made. Ecuador's ministry of strategic sectors, which is in charge of the project to build the new Pacifico refinery, didn't return calls and e-mails seeking comment. Valero, Marathon and PBF declined to comment....Pemex declined to comment on plans for future or existing refineries.

The inability to use oil revenue to build necessary infrastructure has been a frustrating constant in Latin American economic history.


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Tom Long's Latin America Confronts the United States

I read Tom Long's Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence (2015) which is worth your time (and which I hope gets a paperback edition). His argument is that Latin American foreign policy initiatives have received too little attention, and that they've been strikingly successful in setting the political agenda and achieving policy goals. He uses detailed case studies Operation Pan American, the Panama Canal treaties, NAFTA, and Plan Colombia.

There are several things that set the book apart.

First, it is based on some excellent fieldwork, with extensive archival research and interviews with key participants. So beyond the analysis itself, it's an interesting read.

Second, it is a book about policy makers. In the case of Panama, for example, it's even about an individual (Omar Torrijos) overcoming concerns about Cold War security, which is typically seen as an almost overwhelming structural constraint.

Third, coordinated Latin American lobbying matters. This is a variable that Michael Grow uses in his book U.S. Presidents and Latin American Interventions and which deserves much more attention than it gets. Knowing how to deal with U.S. political institutions (especially Congress) and the public is so important.

Fourth, it takes on a lot of existing literature (including my own). Long argues that he is part of an "internationalist" school of thought, versus "establishment" or "revisionist" schools. Both of the latter tend to downplay Latin American agency, albeit for different reasons. That's true, but I think there's actually a lot more potential than Long even gives himself credit for, especially in theoretical terms.

More specifically, one point I would've liked to read more about was the critical obstacle Latin American policy makers found in each case. For each, I found the following, in an obviously simplified manner:

1. OPA: overcoming US resistance to providing large amounts of aid
2. Panama Canal: overcoming US concerns about security
3. NAFTA: overcoming US caution about an FTA with a developing country
4. Plan Colombia: overcoming US suspicions of Colombia

These are all different, so what strategies mattered most? Some of these are economic, and some are political. This stuff could get modeled on some way that could provide a new strand of literature but also potentially contribute to theories of foreign policy more specifically.


Kissinger Didn't Understand South America

The Argentina Declassification Project has been getting some attention for the bits on Henry Kissinger. As anyone with a passing interest in Cold War Latin America knows, Kissinger was a big fan of the Argentine dictatorship, and the Dirty War did not bother him a whit. So the fact that he continued to praise the dictators shouldn't surprise us.

What I found more interesting about the documents is how nicely and accurately Robert Pastor skewered Kissinger. Pastor was a Latin America expert whereas Kissinger knew very little.

Pastor expands on that:

So it's not just indifferent to human rights abuses. It's a lack of understanding about how South American governments relate to each other, which then made him believe such indifference was necessary. Court authoritarian Argentina in order to avoid South American dictatorships come together? This is not a reasonable argument, for the reasons Pastor lays out.


Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Venezuela's Impending Clash

I suggested that maybe the Venezuelan government would simply hold the referendum one day after the deadline to require a new election. Turns out that might literally be true.

National Elections Council President Tibisay Lucena said Tuesday that critics of the socialist administration will likely be authorized in late October to try to collect signatures from 20 percent of voters needed to force a recall. 
Elections officials would then have 90 days to confirm the signatures and schedule any vote. That means the vote might happen in January or February.

Naturally, the government is so very sorry about the delay.

Meanwhile, the opposition is calling for a protest on September 1. All the frustrations will come out, from the empty shelves to the refusal to hold a referendum in a timely manner, and the increasingly militarized government will have to deal with it. It will be a miracle if it remains peaceful.

This is really a problem as the police face protestors. As David Smilde noted, Nicolás Maduro is surrounding himself with military officers:

The logic of cultivating a loyal core among security officials extends beyond those who are on some sort of US blacklist. The recent designation of Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino López as the head of the “Grand Supply Mission” that will take control of Venezuela’s entire food supply system, effectively makes him and the military direct stake holders in the government’s weakest flank: food scarcities. If there is mass social unrest because of shortages, it will not be aimed at a government who then needs to hope the military defends it, it will be aimed at the military itself.

Protests like these, then, may be seen as existential threats. Military officers now control both the police (through the Minister of the Interior) and food distribution.


Bernie Bungles Brazil

Bernie Sanders has just released a letter condemning Dilma Rousseff's removal from power. The timing is odd, almost calculated to have the least possible impact. If you mention it during the campaign, you get headlines. If you mention it right before the Olympics, as many of his colleagues did, then you get some attention on the cusp of the games.

What he chose, though, is a time when he no longer has the national and international stature as a serious candidate, and in the United States people are focused more on the excitement of the games. In short, who will pay attention besides people like me?


Monday, August 08, 2016

Michelle Bachelet's Downward Slide

Michelle Bachelet's approval has dropped to 19%, as she faces problems from just about every angle (most recently it is protests about pensions). The general response has been to continue pressuring her to shuffle her cabinet. It's funny how that sort of action is viewed as potentially effective, when in fact part of the problem is that her entire coalition is falling apart.

It's also funny how the political response is to go back to the past.

The two names that emerged in the poll as most likely to be president after elections due in 2017 are both veteran ex-presidents who have already begun 'soft' campaigning - Lagos and center-right Sebastian Pinera. 
But when asked to choose between the two, most people said they would prefer not to vote (40 percent). The 78-year-old Lagos received 28 percent support, and 66-year-old Pinera 26 percent.

It's exactly like Hillary Clinton trying to position herself as the agent of change. People are not buying it and would prefer to sit it out in disgust.


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