1. The reason I didn’t blog last week:

    He was born here in Mexico City, making him a dual citizen of the US and Mexico. Other than the expected lack of sleep, everyone is doing well.
  2. My family went to breakfast this morning. We took Uber to a restaurant one neighborhood away. It was 40 pesos and typically simple.

    On the way out of the restaurant, the nearest Uber vehicle was 10 minutes away and there was a sitio taxi stand across the street. So we went there instead. Here were the differences between Uber and the sitio taxi:

    1) While the taxi we entered was marked correctly, there was one taxi waiting at the stand that clearly did not have the correct markings to be there.

    2) The taximeter was unplugged. The taxi driver said he preferred not to use it (which is more honest than than the usual “It’s broken.” response).

    3) He said the return trip would be a flat fee of 60 pesos when we know the metered rate would have been closer to 40-50. Gringo tax. There are times I might negotiate or argue, force them to use the meter or find a different cab, but I wasn’t in the mood to debate over one dollar this morning, which is of course what the driver was hoping for.

    4) No change for a 100 peso note. Fortunately, I had 60 pesos exact, but this is a popular tactic for drivers who are trying to make an extra few dollars.

    5) There were no working seat belts in the back seat.

    The differences this morning made me think of the various articles I’ve read on Uber vs Taxis in Latin America, most recently Friday’s article by Bloomberg on the highly problematic fight going on in Bogota.

    Uber has angered taxi drivers across Latin America (and in the United States). One of the common criticisms is that they are operating an “unregulated” taxi service.

    Yet, my experience in Mexico City this morning is fairly typical for taking a taxi anywhere in Latin America. The regulations on taxis are rarely enforced and the individual taxi drivers or their collective groups routinely break the rules to scam customers out of money. Pirate taxis (those that are falsely marked or driven by unlicensed drivers) are a regular problem. The background checks done by Uber and similar apps in Latin America are better than the checks done on taxi drivers. The app shows that the driver and car are the correct person, which makes people feel safer than someone going up to a sitio or waving a cab down on the street (that better level of security may not be true in some countries outside of the region including some cities in the US, but it certainly is true across the board in Latin America).

    Complaining about my taxi vs Uber ride is far from a “first world problem.” Within urban areas like Mexico City, taxis are an important part of the transportation system for the lower middle class and upper levels of the poor who cannot afford or prefer not the spend money on their own car. Many within those economic classes now have some form of smart phones that can use alternative ride sharing apps.

    Leaving aside the debate over the legality of Uber and other ride-sharing applications, we’d all be safer and better treated if the municipal and national governments of the region did a better job regulating and enforcing the rules on taxis and other transportation providers.

    Of course, citizens need to be part of the solution. Did I take down my cab driver’s license number this morning and call Mexico City’s enforcement agency to complain about my driver’s failure to use a taximeter? Nope. And even if I did call, I (like many people in Latin America) don’t think the government agency would have done anything to response, which is part of the reason these problems aren’t reported. Instead, I’ll just be more likely to use Uber next time.

    This is why the taxi drivers are losing across the region. Taxi companies and drivers are having a very hard time facing competition that provides better service at a similar price. Taxi drivers complain about ride-sharing apps being unregulated and want to use the regulatory system as a form of protectionism against the market disrupting trend. However, it isn’t gaining much popular traction because everyone knows that those taxi regulations aren’t currently helping taxi customers. Their regulatory arguments are not going to get them very far as long as they don't fix their own poor customer service problems internally.
  3. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights held sessions last week on issues across the hemisphere. I recommend that you download the PDF of their agenda and take a look through the cases that they are covering. While some governments have tried to portray the IACHR as specifically targeting them, the organization covers a wide range of cases that don't benefit any particular political ideology.

    As I wrote in 2013, for those who worked hard to defend the existence of the IACHR against the campaign to dismantle it, it's also important to pay attention to the actual issues the commission faces. For the US, that includes racial biases in the criminal justice system, the rights of migrant workers, the victims of human trafficking and the ongoing legal and human rights concerns about Guantanamo Bay's detention facilities.
  4. There were major protests in Ecuador yesterday against President Correa. Thousands of people protested in 14 cities in the country (WSJ, El Comercio, El Universo)

    There was no one theme for the protest. There were indigenous groups including Conaie angry about Correa's environmental policies including drilling in the rain forest. Workers and unions were angry about labor and tax policies. University students want free or subsidized education. Several smaller cities saw social movements protesting over local issues, trying to make them national. Conservative groups appeared organized around potential constitutional changes to allow for another reelection.

    On one hand, the protests have some potential power because they show ideologically diverse groups of people who are unified in their opposition to the president. On the other hand, with no unifying theme other than their dislike of Correa, these groups are going to find it difficult to build a political movement that can oppose him.

    Correa, internationally known for his thin skin and inability to deal with criticism, tried to both hype and dismiss the protests, claiming they were an attempt to destabilize the government but also saying they were too small to matter. He appeared particularly annoyed and concerned with the coalition of social and indigenous movements, usually associated with more left-wing politics, who had protested against them. He claimed those groups were being paid off by right-wing politicians.

    Cedatos placed Correa's approval rating at 60% at the end of last year, with 32% opposed. Credible opinion polls are hard to come by in Ecuador, but Correa is almost certainly concerned about his political support being hit by by lower oil prices, slowing growth and the strong dollar, which is hurting the country's other exports relative to Ecuador's neighbors.
  5. The OAS elected Luis Almagro, Uruguay's former foreign minister, as the secretary general of the OAS.

    From his speech:
    "I am not interested in administering the crisis in the OAS. I am bent on facilitating the emergence of a revitalized OAS."
    He also repeated his top agenda items for the OAS, which are the following:
    • Citizen Security, one of the two or three top concerns in all the countries of the Hemisphere. We will work together with multilateral organizations on a hemispheric initiative, adopting a comprehensive approach to the problem.
    • School of Governance. We will help train civil servants and civil society by endowing them with tools for good governance, transparency, accountability, and for forging consensus.
    • Preventing social conflicts.  We will facilitate dialogue between regional and international investors and the states and communities in key productive sectors that generate wealth and conflicts about how that wealth is distributed.
    • Natural disaster prevention and management in the Caribbean and Central America.  We will develop a coordinated network of best practices with the United Nations and multilateral organizations.
    • Interconnectivity in the Caribbean.  This will be an initiative to overcome digital connectivity divides, and develop more even commercial use of rivers and air traffic, so as to attract investment to the region and boost progress and jobs for young people.
    • Pan American Network on the Quality of Education. This initiative will enable us to move on from achievements in enhancing access to education to achievements in enhancing the impact of education at higher levels.  
    While there isn't anything particularly wrong with these specific items, Almagro left out several areas where the OAS currently does important work: election observation, marking and tracing of firearms, and cybersecurity, to name three. He also didn't mention support for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, one of the key areas of dispute in the hemisphere.

    Many people have big agendas for the OAS, but once they're in the weeds, they end up "administering the crisis" rather than reforming the organization or using it to accomplish big goals. Former Secretary General Insulza certainly fell into that trap, something that nobody mentioned out loud yesterday but many thought privately as Almagro said those words. It's now Almagro's job to avoid the same fate.
  6. Datafolha poll via Folha

    I'm sure Dilma wouldn't appreciate the comparison, but President Cardoso's numbers looked very similar in September 1999, with a huge drop in approval less than a year in to his second term due to an economic crisis.
  7. A front page article in today's NYT describes a series of scandals around Haiti President Martelly. A simple reading of the article suggests that Haiti's president has surrounded himself with some rather corrupt people and has engaged in some bad activities himself.

    Particularly concerning are the allegations that the president has worked to crack down on civil society and manipulate the judiciary to protect allies and punish opponents.

    So why isn't there more outrage in Haiti? Why are protests not gaining momentum? The answer, as it is too often in this hemisphere, is that the president's political opponents shot themselves in the foot.

    Martelly's political opponents brought the current situation upon themselves by refusing to schedule elections when they had the power to do so. It turns out most people have a nuanced enough view of politics to understand the president isn't much of a dictator when it was the opposition that blocked the elections and forced the president into a rule-by-decree mode (this is also why boycotting elections almost never helps an opposition).

    Instead of working through the institutions to oppose the president, Haiti's opposition attempted a high-stakes gamble of forcing the president into decree mode and hoping that they'd be able to claim the president was acting undemocratically. Martelly has helped himself by moving forward with elections at a relatively quick pace, not trying to abuse his decree authority or prolong his decree time in a significant way.

    A president actively working to rebuild a broken institution and check his own power is something of a rare development in this hemisphere. The opposition's attempt to make Martelly into a dictator has instead made Martelly, someone who is surrounded by corrupt advisors and not always followed democratic rules, look like a pretty decent guy.
  8. Yesterday's protest in Brazil had somewhere between one and two million people nationwide take to the street. In Sao Paulo alone, crowd estimates ranged from 200,000 to one million. Most of the protesters were against the government and many supported some form of impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, though the specific reasons or mechanisms for impeachment were not overwhelmingly clear.

    Rio Gringa has more analysis. Folha has a bunch of pictures plus an interesting article on how they estimate crowd sizes (and why their crowd size estimates are almost always on the low end).

    One big day of protests is a major show of discontent, a sign that Rousseff has significant opposition within public opinion. She lacks political capital to pass her agenda just a few months into her new term, which is a problem. The fact that people could organize and take to the streets is significant and a million people organizing and marching should never be discounted as somehow unrepresentative and therefore unimportant. Any organization that can put a million people on the streets matters.

    However, these protests are not big enough to threaten the stability of the Brazilian government. They do not appear to have any sustainable plan for keeping people in the streets or disrupting the normal city activities in the coming days. Their message is not inclusive enough to attract the broader coalition necessary to maintain pressure. Public opinion polls show that a majority of Brazilians do not favor impeachment.

    The protests in 2013 changed when they moved beyond the initial organizers and coalitions to include a larger cross-section of Brazilian society, including those who are less politically active. While several factors contributed, a major one was police repression of those protests and the photos of that repression spreading on social media. These 2015 protests, while already fairly large, do not yet appear to have the catalyst to make that same leap from initial organizers to broader society.
  9. Predictably, Venezuela’s government has latched on to the sanctions announcement and overreacted.

    However, it’s the US pundits who have surprised in their overreaction to the sanctions. Without naming names, here’s some of the conventional wisdom I’m sure you’ve read in articles over the past two days:
    Gives Maduro a lifeline.
    Gift to Maduro.
    Falls into Maduro’s trap.
    Plays into Maduro’s hands.
    Here is why that conventional wisdom is wrong and the Obama administration is correct.

    Maduro is not Chavez. We all remember when Chavez was alive and just how good he was at this sort of political jujitsu. Chavez would have taken these sanctions and turned them into approval points in the polls because he was a rare gifted populist politician who could pull it off. However, pundits who believe Maduro can do this as well as Chavez have apparently missed the last two years of events in Venezuela. They are “fighting the last war” as they say in the military. Maduro wants to be Chavez. He’s trying to use Chavez’s playbook on these sanctions. But he’ll fail because in everything Maduro has attempted to do he has proven to be nowhere near the skilled politician that his predecessor was.

    Venezuela’s situation is fairly bad. The economy is in a recession. Inflation is over 100%. The Bolivar has dropped further on the black market. The crime and security situation makes Venezuela one of the five most dangerous countries in the world. US sanctions of some corrupt officials from an unpopular government are not going to overshadow those problems.

    Maduro looks out of touch. While Maduro wants to use the sanctions to distract Venezuela’s citizens from the domestic economic and security problems, for many voters, his focus on the US makes him look out of touch from Venezuela’s citizens and problems. His attempt to create a distraction is just as likely to make him look distracted. That will harm his public image over time.

    Maduro’s attempts to blame the US in the past have not worked. Congress passed and the Obama signed the sanctions back in December. Before the specific announcement this week, the Maduro government spent the past two months condemning those December sanctions and trying to use them as a distraction. Even before December, Maduro's government has spent the last two years trying to blame the US for Venezuela's problems. How has that worked out for Maduro? Not well. His government received some statements of support from UNASUR and CELAC, but the region hasn’t rallied around Venezuela and domestic public opinion has continued to go downhill. There is little reason to think Maduro's response to the sanctions this week will be any more effective than his response to the sanctions in December or anything else the US has done in recent years.

    Maduro has cried wolf too many times. For all of Maduro’s bluster, the US is not invading or attempting to overthrow his government. His previous claims of plots have turned out fairly empty. Both Venezuela’s citizens and the region are realizing the monthly (or weekly) panicked calls for help to fight against the gringo invasion and coup plots are becoming a waste of time.

    US-Cuba relations are on the mend. Specifically, President Obama is going to shake Raul Castro’s hand in Panama next month at the Summit of the Americas. There is no amount of reaction to these sanctions that the Maduro government can manage that will trump that image of US relations with Latin America.

    The US is on the right side of history. When you look at the seven individuals the US sanctioned, nobody is criticizing the sanctions by defending their individual actions. Does Brazil want to defend the generals who ran Sebin and ordered protesters detained and tortured? Does UNASUR want to defend the prosecutor who has unjustly detained and brought charges against political opponents? Does any country want to defend corrupt military leaders who are laundering millions in stolen government funds while Venezuela has a hard time paying its bills? Those are the people the Obama administration sanctioned. Twenty years from now, those are the sort of Chavista officials who will be remembered like the generals from the Pinochet or Videla governments are remembered today. It’s good policy for the US to be on the right side of history today and it’s more likely to pay off sooner than later.
  10. Vice President Biden was in Guatemala last week to speak with the leaders of the Northern Triangle about their Alliance for Prosperity plan and the proposed one billion dollars in support from the US. Biden's op-ed yesterday in The Hill was directed at Congress to show some limited progress already made and sketch out a plan ahead, with the goals of improved security, good governance and increased private investment.

    For those who like policy details, the joint statement released after last week's meetings contains a number of initiatives, some vague and some relatively specific, that the Northern Triangle is committing to as part of this process. When Biden writes in his op-ed, "rigorously evaluating our programs to build on what works and eliminate what doesn’t deliver the impact we need," this is a document upon which those evaluations can be built and measured. For that reason, save the text.

    To reference something I wrote last week, the joint statement commits Honduras to some results on police reform in the near future: "During the first half of 2015, Honduras will announce a proposal for the comprehensive reform of its educational system and its police training initiative, as well as its plan to train and contract 6,000 new police officers over the next three years."

    That Honduras police training initiative is among many of the points that can and should be implemented whether or not the US Congress passes the new assistance package. While US assistance would help a great deal and send a strong message encouraging these reforms to occur, there is a lot for Central America to do independent of what the US Congress does.

    There was a bit of controversy in the trip as VP Biden told Guatemalan President Perez Molina that the US Congress is less likely to approve a large new assistance package if his government drops the CICIG. That was not as much a conditionality on the aid as it was a statement of political reality in the US. I think the US assistance should move forward in either case. Guatemala's president rejected the pressure, also noting that Honduras and El Salvador don't have and wouldn't accept such an institution. This is going to be a big fight in the coming months. Whether or not Guatemala maintains the CICIG, all three countries should know that supporting institutions to fight corruption and impunity is vital to the success of the region.