Monday, February 20, 2017

Review of Hillbilly Elegy

Written by a Yale Law alumnus and self-described conservative hillbilly, J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy:A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016) is so absorbing in no small part because it should confound conservatives and liberals alike. It's a memoir about class difference.

What might annoy conservatives: he thinks the idea of blaming Barack Obama or the government in general for the plight of the white working class is ridiculous, and policies (Trump is not mentioned but is clearly relevant here) of blame are based on false premises. Plus, acceptance of diversity is healthy.

What might annoy liberals: he believes the key problem for the white working class is actually working hard rather than refusing hard work. Patriotism, pride, faith, and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps (such as through the U.S. military) are real and they should be celebrated as solutions. Stable marriages should be prioritized.

Vance grew up poor in Appalachia, raised largely by his grandparents because his mother was (is) a drug addict. His grandmother, who was mean as a snake and swore constantly, was his savior (she is clearly the hero of this story). He struggled mightily through life, but ultimately went into the Marines (which for him was transformational), Ohio State (a double major in two years!) and Yale Law School. Impressive by any standard.

But he still feels the culture he grew up in. Toward the end he thinks about how lucky he was and how to help others do the same. Public policy, he feels, can help, but only so much. Hillbillies need to help each other, create their own support systems, and learn to feel empowered. That goes beyond any political party or slogan. Heartfelt, provocative, and worthy of discussion.


Ecuador's Presidential Election

According to the Consejo Nacional Electoral del Ecuador, Rafael Correa's chosen candidate Lenín Moreno has 39.1% of the vote, and opposition Guillermo Lasso has 28.28%. To win without a runoff, Moreno needs to edge his total up to 40%, at which time he would also have 10+% more than the second place candidate. There are conflicting accounts of where the remaining votes will likely go.

Boz has been following this on Twitter and makes the good point that even if Moreno gets just over the hump, he'll have a problem given the slim margin. The runoff system is intended to provide more legitimacy to the victor than, for example, we have in the United States. But if you just barely get to the minimum threshold, it works just as poorly as here.

Whatever the result, this will be labeled as part of a regional referendum on ideology, which is unfortunate. This is more about a country with a government that's been in power a long time, faces some serious economic challenges, but also which stabilized Ecuador to a degree it hasn't enjoyed in a very long time.


Friday, February 17, 2017

Podcast Episode 23: Venezuelan Conspiracy Theories

In Episode 23 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with Hugo Pérez Hernáiz, who is is Profesor de la Escuela de Sociología at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, about Venezuelan conspiracy theories. He studies political conspiracies and has blogged extensively about both Venezuelan politics and conspiracy theories on his blog VenezuelanConspiracy Theories Monitor and on the Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog, run by the Washington Office on Latin America. We do a little bit of comparison to Donald Trump, but not too much.


Chile's Apathetic Presidential Race

Patricio Navia has a nice roundup of the presidential scene in Chile at Latin America Goes Global.

The issue of new/old, which of course is connected to demography is increasingly important in Chile. The dictatorship left power 27 years ago, and a bit more than 35% of the current population was born in 1990 or later. Even notable events like Augusto Pinochet's 1998 arrest in Great Britain is a hazy memory of their youth.

Therefore key members of the political transition like Ricardo Lagos are especially dull choices (Eduardo Frei's 2009 effort to get a second term may well count as the dullest ever). Yet despite the apathy toward and/or dislike of the two main coalitions, Chile still does not face any populist or outsider candidates with any traction. The country seems to be going from an unpopular second-term president (Michelle Bachelet) to an inspiring new president.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

Attacks on the Media in Latin America

Marisa Kellam and Elizabeth Stein have a great post at The Monkey Cage about government attacks on the media with a comparison to Donald Trump.

One strategy hostile presidents use is to circumvent traditional media by finding ways to get directly to their constituencies. They mention TV shows, which of course Hugo Chávez was famous for. But it made me think about how Trump's choice of Twitter is more awkward because of the brevity. I could quite easily imagine, however, Trump deciding to create his own show since he already has experience doing so. In other words, it's a bad sign if that happens.

Another point that merits mention is one I was just bringing up in my Latin American Politics class, namely that U.S. presidents are weaker than their Latin American counterparts, so media suppression here is more difficult. Trump can bluster and Breitbart can complain about the traitorous "deep state" but the U.S. presidency has a lot less power than the average American thinks (and, clearly, Trump also thought).


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Maduro Keeping His Head Down

I'm quoted in this article about the Trump administration's policy toward Venezuela. My quip about Nordstrom may not be particularly erudite (and it's so last week!) but my overall point was that for now Nicolás Maduro is keeping his head down and trying not to get Trump's attention. There is no obvious reason for Trump to spend much time dealing with Venezuela or getting sucked into a deeper conflict. So if Maduro can keep his name out of the headlines in major U.S. media outlets by, say, insulting Trump, all the better. No "Mr. Danger" so far.

Incidentally, David Smilde thinks Trump is in fact starting to pay more attention to Venezuela. Since Trump seems to have few actual guiding foreign policy principles that we can discern, we're all just guessing even more than usual.


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Thomas C. Wright's Impunity, Human Rights, and Democracy

I read Thomas Wright's Impunity, Human Rights, and Democracy: Chile and Argentina, 1990-2005 (2014) for review in an academic journal. Here's a sample:

Thomas Wright has written a well-researched and succinct account of the efforts in Argentina and Chile to bring human rights abusers to justice after the transition from military to civilian rule. His goal is to understand how impunity eroded and justice advanced, even if slowly and imperfectly, in the face of stiff resistance from the military, its political allies, and even cautious policy makers. 
He combines a synthesis of the existing literature with over forty of his own interviews and a variety of primary documents. The essential argument of the book is that human rights activists laid the initial groundwork in each country even when conditions were decidedly negatively due not only to the military’s political power but also to lack of funding.  Yet at the same time, buoyed by increased attention from the United States, international human rights NGOs increased the scope of their work. Then a confluence of precipitating events gave new life to domestic activists and judges.

It's worth checking out.


Flowers From Colombia and Ecuador

Just a reminder on this Valentine's Day that the flowers you're buying likely came from Ecuador or Colombia. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has the following data for 2015.

This occasion (like Mother's Day) is important for the economies of both countries and they are very attuned to it. But they also come with challenges:

In Ecuador:

The flower industry in Ecuador, and rose-growing in particular, has been both a boon and a burden for the country; while it created more than 115,000 jobs in 2008, occupied mostly by women, and exported $800 million worth of cut flowers in 2015, the industry has grappled with water overuse and the human impact of horticultural chemicals.

In Colombia:

Stooping over rose bushes all day takes a toll on the body. One benchmark study revealed that Colombian flower workers can be exposed to 127 different chemicals from pesticide use. Pregnant women exposed to pesticide chemicals have high rates of premature births and miscarriages. Pay is minimal, the few pesos awarded per packaged rose result in a monthly paycheck of $300 or less. Child labor was rampant in the cut-flower business before initiatives were implemented in 1996 to eliminate the practice, but the use of underage workers still occurs. Women dominate the worker population, with more than 80,000 holding positions on farms, and sexual harassment by male bosses is often reported.

Sorry, I'm not trying to lay a guilt trip on you or ruin the occasion. We political scientists just tend to find the politics in everything.


Monday, February 13, 2017

Trump Sanctions Tareck El Aissami

The Trump administration has imposed sanctions on Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami with sanctions. As I wrote last week, this is an easy decision for Trump. He can just continue President Obama's policy, ratcheting it up a bit because the target is quite high, and call it his own.

In a way, this works out fine for Nicolás Maduro as well. When people are targeted by the U.S., they're more likely to remain loyal.

The sanctions mark an extraordinary step against the second-in-command of a foreign government and are sure to lead to a further deterioration of U.S. relations with the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who appointed El Aissami as vice president on Jan. 4 amid a deepening economic and humanitarian crisis.

Maybe I am being too blasé after being numbed by following Venezuelan politics so long, but I feel like this is extraordinary only if you ignore how the Obama administration was already dealing with the Venezuelan government.

The bigger question is whether Trump takes this any further. I don't figure he will because he's not particularly interested in Venezuela and has other things occupying his time. Plus, even that congressional letter didn't ask for much more. But obviously he's unpredictable.


PPK Talks Deportation

Now here's a first. A Latin American leader talked favorably with Donald Trump about deportation.

Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski talked on the phone with Trump and asked him to deport former president Alejandro Toledo, who is implicated in the Odebrecht scandal. Will Trump do it? He should. The U.S. has long been a cozy place for former Latin American presidents facing accusations at home.

Apparently the two also talked about Venezuela, but I found it interesting that the White House referred to it as "humanitarian," which at least suggests that Trump is not planning on getting into the political side of it.


Sunday, February 12, 2017

Review of Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here

I read Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here and so should you. Published in 1935, it portrays an America that elects the populist Buzz Windrip, who sweeps in with promises he can't possibly keep ($5,000 for everyone!) but which people get themselves to believe; on making the country as good as it used to be, rejecting intellectuals, distrusting universities, attacking the press, railing against Jewish bankers, and even racist antagonism toward Mexico. People felt that he wouldn't be so bad once he was in office. After all, it can't happen here.

I noted so many similarities of Lewis' descriptions to now that I quickly lost count. And in his homespun, funny, snarky manner he lays out the easy disintegration of U.S. democracy and the cowing of the American people. The story revolves largely around Doremus Jessup, a small town newspaper editor who covers the coming of Buzz Windrip and then feels the brunt of censorship and violence.

On the people who believed in the president:

"they were the men and women who, in 1935 and 1936, had turned to Windrip & Co., not as perfect, but as the most probable saviors of the country from, on one hand, domination by Moscow and, on the other hand, the slack indolence, the lack of decent pride of half the American youth, whose world (these idealists asserted) was composed of shiftless distaste for work and refusal to learn anything thoroughly, of blatting dance music on the radio, maniac automobiles, slobbering sexuality, the humor and art of comic strips--of a slave psychology which was making Americaa land for sterner men to loot" (p. 350).

The book is even more effective than 1984 or other famous dystopias because it is so very American. Even though it was written in the 1930s, you can recognize the context, the development, and the hatred that so quickly can bubble up and then is harnessed. Liberty is snuffed in the name of liberty.


Friday, February 10, 2017

Jared Kushner and Mexico

It seems that Jared Kushner has taken a lead role in foreign policy, especially U.S.-Mexican relations. While I had written previously that a connection between Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray and Secretary of State Tillerson might calm things down, it remains to be seen how much Tillerson is in the loop. Kushner has Oval Office access.

He asked for articles about Mexico and U.S.-Mexican relations, so he knows nothing about the topic. (I suppose the glass half full response would be that at least he's trying--I'd love to know whose articles he's given). More problematic, though, is that Donald Trump's attention span is minuscule. Kushner tried to moderate Trump's Mexico speech, but quickly everything went off the rails and Trump went berserk on Twitter.

Thus, we have foreign policy based on ignorance (literally, in the sense that neither Trump nor Kushner know anything about the countries they're dealing with) and whim.  Kushner's main ability is to get you on Trump's radar and maybe even into the Oval Office, which makes him a magnet. But complex discussion of issues and options so far may not be in the cards.

Unfortunately, this is where all foreign policy may now be going:

The diplomatic community is taking note, viewing Mexico as a guinea pig. Senior officials from several other countries have already reached out to their Mexican counterparts, hoping to glean insights about the new president, the changing geopolitical dynamics in Washington and the quiet, dimpled man behind it all — Kushner. 


Thursday, February 09, 2017

Congressional Letter About Venezuela

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen authored a letter with Bob Menendez and co-signed by 32 other members of Congress, split between the two parties. It asks the Trump administration to take action against the Venezuelan government and thereby send a signal to "bad actors" (how's that for a cringe-worthy phrase?).

Given the authors, I was a bit surprised by how mild it seemed. Get some more funds for NGOs, do targeted sanctions against Venezuelan officials proven to be involved in corruption, make sure there are no Odebrecht-related problems for U.S. businesses, and investigate Tareck El Aissami. In short, pretty much a continuation of what President Obama had already been doing. Notably absent are any broader economic sanctions, vague calls to be tough or, in fact, even any criticism of the Obama administration's own policies.

Trump, who cares very little about Venezuela, can just renew Obama's original policies, call them his own, and declare victory.


Wednesday, February 08, 2017

India and Latin America

Jorge Heine (Chile's Ambassador to China) and Hari Seshasayee (an Indian who has done a lot research on Latin America) have a book chapter on Latin America-India ties. It provides a good summary of this relatively new relationship that tends to get obscured by so much attention on China.

It's been tentative, driven largely by bilateral commercial agreements. There's not much historical connection so the ties are not too deep. There are also few non-economic ties, so the diplomatic connections remain shallow as well. Interestingly, they note the lack of air connectivity. So even if you want to establish some sort of more permanent linkage--student exchanges, let's say, or even just tourism--you can't get there and back very easily.


Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Podcast Episode 22: The Military in Central America

In Episode 22 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with Orlando Pérez, a political scientist who is Associate Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Millersville University. The topic is the military in Central America, which he has studied extensively (including this book).  Why is it such a trusted institution despite human rights abuses? What is its political role? Not particularly an uplifting conversation but definitely a fascinating one.


Monday, February 06, 2017

Argentina and Immigration

In my classes students often ask why Latin American countries seem unable to unite more. So we spend time talking about nationalism, racism, cultural differences, etc. This story in the New York Times about how Argentine President Mauricio Macri issued a restrictive immigration decree (here is the long-winded text) is a good illustration. Macri's government argues that this is about crime and in practice is focusing on Bolivians, Peruvians, and Paraguayans.

In general, it appears that Bolivians are to Macri what Mexicans are to Donald Trump. The different-looking scapegoat "other" (complete with calls for a wall!). And of course it seems no coincidence that this comes just after Trump issued his own Executive Order. Like the US-Mexico border, the Argentina-Bolivia border has been a magnet for smuggling and organized crime. As a result, Bolivian migrants are easy targets, just as Mexicans are in the United States.


Saturday, February 04, 2017

Islamic Threat in Latin America

Chris Sabatini wrote a piece in the Christian Science Monitor emphasizing that we should not overstate the Islamic threat in Latin America. That's a position I share and one I've made for many years on this blog.

The Monitor published a response to that article, which is useful primarily for how we can see how flawed the alarmist stance is. For example, Chris wrote that a "series of alarmist, unsubstantiated charges...will only distort our policy and turn off our allies." In the rebuttal, one of the sources used is "According to reports." That is the very definition of unsubstantiated.

Further, the rebuttal asserts that the U.S. should "punish local elites." How such punishment would be meted out is (as always with such articles) left unsaid. Such loose threats fit perfectly with Chris' point that "there is the risk of alienating our partners in the region and making it more difficult to secure the sort of cooperation that we need to keep U.S. citizens safe."

As Chris writes, and as I've written (and any number of other people) the United States absolutely must be vigilant in Latin America. But why is it so hard for people to understand that heavy-handed, loose cannon tactics will always backfire?


Friday, February 03, 2017

Podcast Episode 21: Anti-Americanism in Latin America

In Episode 21 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with David Cupery, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. The topic is anti-Americanism in Latin America, unfortunately a topic we may have to start thinking about again.

Be sure to check out his article on this topic in the recent special issue of The Latin Americanist.


Mexico Wants To Get Out Of Headlines

There are differing accounts about whether Donald Trump said/joked that the U.S. might send troops to Mexico to fight drug cartels. We may never know. We do know for sure that he actually said "bad hombres" to the Mexican president and probably pronounced it "hambres" which in Spanish means he said "bad hungers." But I digress.

What's more interesting to me is the Mexican reaction. Mexico wants to get relations out of the headlines, which has been bad both for getting anything constructive accomplished and for Enrique Peña Nieto personally.

This interview (yes, I am linking to Anderson Cooper, perhaps a first) with Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray is instructive in this regard. Not only does he try to smooth things over, but he also discusses his personal relationship with newly confirmed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who knew Videgaray when he was Finance Minister. The best scenario for Mexico--and indeed likely for the U.S. as well--is to shift the bulk of diplomacy to these two establishment figures.

Whether this actually happens depends on a) whether Tillerson ends up with influence in the administration, which we just don't yet know; and b) whether Trump is willing to stop tweeting/saying inflammatory things, which to this point has been an impulse he's been unable to control.


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