1. The impending Greek default has inspired numerous articles comparing and contrasting Greece to Argentina.

    There are certainly some lessons for Greece to learn from Argentina's situation as well as some key differences (including Argentina being a currency peg instead of actually on the dollar, the way Greece is on the Euro). However, one of the hardest parts about the analogy is separating out Argentina's default from everything that happened afterward.

    Post-default, Argentina went through short political turmoil followed by a political dynasty in the Kirchners that has brought some level of political stability. Whether that stability has been good or bad can be debated, but having a Kirchner as president for over a decade has certainly been a defining feature of the country's political and economic environment. Since the default, Argentina has been through a commodity boom and bust and arguments over manipulated economic statistics, prolonged currency controls, price controls and state subsidies. The country has maintained a fight against holdouts, aka vulture funds, and disputes with others that have hampered its return to international financial markets.

    None of those events in the preceding paragraph were pre-ordained by the default. They are all decisions taken by the country and its political leadership in the years since the default or geopolitical trends that were specific to the past decade. We can imagine (imperfectly) what alternative decisions or trends would have changed about Argentina's story.

    One of the biggest differences in the political environment is who is in charge when the default occurs. Argentina's default occurred under a government that had been attempting various austerity measures and reforms supported by more conservative economists (though the country under Menem had been living large for the previous decade). Those conservatives, and neoliberal economics in general, took the blame and led to the rise of a more populist movement. The populism of Kirchnerismo emerged in the year after the default and benefitted from starting its leadership at a bottom point economically.

    On the other hand, Greece's Syriza, also representative of a populist movement, has come to power pre-default. If they go through with default, they are almost certainly in for some hard times that are going to hit the political viability of their political party. While they will try to place the blame on previous administrations (and rightfully so), the fact is that the government in power almost always takes the blame when economic times are tough.

    That is a key difficulty in analogizing the pro-default Kirchners with the pro-default Syriza, as many are trying to do. It was easy for the Kirchners to be pro-default and turn themselves into warriors against international creditors because the default and its worst short term consequences had already taken place before they came to power. Right now, Syriza is the one having to make the tough decisions and facing the consequences. The luck of timing is not on their side, the way it was with the Kirchners.
  2. During the dialogues between the Venezuela government and opposition in April 2014, I wrote:
    Of the 23 people who spoke during the five hour dialogue, only one was a woman: PSUV Congressional Deputy Blanca Eekhout spoke for about 10 minutes. While recognizing that the opposition's top female politician, Maria Corina Machado, boycotted these talks, it's a stunning lack of diversity that leads the MUD to send 11 men and zero women to the dialogue table and the government to send nine men and one woman.
    This week's post on the subject at Caracas Chronicles was absolutely brilliant:
    It’s time to face it guys: the MUD has a sexism problem. It’s a sausage fest.
    Look at the photos! If Delsa Solórzano didn’t exist, they’d have to invent her.

    In Mexico, 37% of members of congress are women. In Argentina it’s 36%. In Costa Rica 33%. Even in Colombia, which lags badly for the region, it’s 20%. And in Venezuela – no thanks, shamefully, to MUD – it’s 17%.

    And in MUD’s candidate list? 11%!
    The author of that post, Audrey Dacosta, acknowledges that the government is calling for gender quotas as a way of screwing up the election process, not as a high minded progressive effort to expand women's representation. It's completely unfair for the government to demand 40% of the candidates be women after the MUD primary and candidate selection process takes place. This is something that election authorities should have been planned and implemented years in advance, not a few months before a poorly planned election process that is already in motion.

    We all know the government isn't going to run a fair election process and will look for every opportunity to undermine the opposition. It doesn't help when the opposition hands them an easy way to do so. The MUD's lack of women candidates is shameful. 11%! It's wrong on many levels, including the pragmatic level that would help the opposition to win an election and potentially govern in the future. I agree with Dacosta that the opposition should be grateful that the government is forcing them to address this issue.

    To quote David Smilde on an unrelated post:
    The same Datanalisis poll shows that while almost twice as many people identify with the opposition (42%) than Chavismo (22%), approximately the same percentage identifies with opposition parties (21%) as with the PSUV (20%). 
    So only half of the Venezuelans who consider themselves in the opposition identify with the opposition's political parties. Or to run the numbers another way, a majority of Venezuelans (59%) at this point do not feel represented by either the government party or the opposition parties.

    The current wave of discontent should be a huge opportunity for Venezuela's opposition. It's their chance to win over the population that doesn't feel like the system represents them. But the opposition can't do that as long as the old men in their leadership cling to power, preventing the rise of new voices and representation from women and youth. 
  3. Human Rights Watch published a major report this week on Colombia’s false positives scandal. Between 2002 and 2008, thousands of civilians were killed and counted among the FARC deaths, a way for military commanders to show success on the battlefield. While several hundred soldiers have been convicted for their actions, no high level commanders have faced justice. The report from HRW attempts to prove that the commanders must have had knowledge of the killings, if not directly ordering them, and that witnesses and prosecutors who have tried to speak out have been pressured into silence.

    In spite of the false positives scandal, the 2002-2008 timeframe is one in which a lot of positive things happened in Colombia’s conflict. The military largely broke their ties to paramilitary groups, forced the AUC into a negotiated surrender, retook significant territory, reduced the FARC’s combat capabilities and saw a major reduction in homicides and other crimes throughout the country. The vast majority of the Colombian population is safer thanks to the actions of the Colombian military and government during that time.

    That history is part of what makes this false positives scandal so difficult for Colombia’s military and political leadership. It also makes it difficult for the US, which holds Colombia up as a model for success. The civilian deaths that occurred, and the evidence revealed since then that the abuses were systemic and occurred with the knowledge of military leadership, are a dark stain on what is otherwise a very positive story from a security and military viewpoint.

    From the US perspective, military commanders implicated in significant human rights abuses should not receive military aid or training. It’s not convenient to do that to a US ally, but it’s US law and that law exists for a good reason. Per US law, those commanders should also lose their visas to travel to the US and potentially have their assets within the US seized. That is going to be tough because these commanders are at the highest levels of the chain of command and have been important to US-Colombia bilateral security cooperation over the years. Though difficult, we can still find ways to work with lower levels of the the Colombian military without working with these specific commanders.

    The US should also thoroughly investigate what evidence we had while this was occurring. Given that many people (myself included) view Colombia as a model for improved security, understanding what could have been done better to avoid this major human rights abuse and the deaths of thousands of innocents is an obligation we should not avoid.

    It is important that the US follow through on this. From a regional perspective, the US recently placed sanctions on military and intelligence commanders of a neighboring country for abuses against the civilian population. Taking similar actions against Colombian commanders who oversaw the killings of thousands of civilians is needed to show consistency in policies. Regardless of the regional implications, it’s also important to bilateral relations with Colombia, as supporting human rights and victims is one of the best ways the US can help improve the Colombian military and US-Colombia relations over the long term.

    For good reasons, we hold governments and government security forces to a higher standard than criminals and illegal armed groups. The FARC and paramilitary groups certainly committed (and continue to commit) worse abuses during this conflict, but the abuses by illegal groups do not and can not justify human rights abuses by the military. It's not permissible in the modern era to say "war is messy" and let these scandals go. The false positives were a widespread and systemic abuse against the civilian population. The scandal caused serious damage to the credibility of the Colombian military.

    At the same time, human rights groups should understand there is a certain unfairness in calling for military commanders who fought for their country to be placed in jail while guerrillas, criminals and terrorists who fought against the state are given a better deal. While the FARC leadership are asking for reduced or no jail time, these cases against the military commanders are going to be on the table as well. The government is not going to sign a successful peace deal that jails military commanders while FARC leadership obtain congressional seats. That’s not going to make victims rights or human rights groups happy, but it’s the political reality of the peace negotiation.

    Obtaining the truth on the false positives scandal is more important than the potential jail time. The families of the victims have a right to know who killed their sons and daughters. The pressure against witnesses to remain silent is an ongoing problem, not something that can be pointed to as “in the past” and needs to end. Colombia needs an honest accounting of the abuses that occurred on all sides as part of its search for peace. In that regard, this report by HRW and the pressure it is putting on the issue are a step forward.
  4. Brazilian authorities detained Marcelo Odebrecht last week in connection with their investigations into corruption at Petrobras. Authorities say they have evidence showing Oderbrecht paid bribes to Petrobras and politicians in order to receive contracts and overbill on contracts as well as helped lead a cartel of companies to manipulate bidding processes.

    As many have written in recent days, the implication in Brazil is that authorities are not afraid to go after the most powerful business executives, even at companies that are vital to the overall economy.

    There may be a broader implication around the region. Odebrecht has construction contracts all over Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. In the process of collecting evidence on the case in Brazil, police are likely to discover evidence Odebrecht conducted itself similarly in many other countries. So what happens if the Brazil police now have evidence that Odebrecht paid bribes to obtain contracts in Venezuela or Colombia or Argentina or Mexico? That evidence would not only implicate the company, but also the government officials who received the bribes. There are major political implications to the decisions to withhold or release that evidence to local prosecutors or the media.
  5. Pope Francis’s has written what is likely to be the most widely read encyclical letter in history. He has placed the Catholic Church strongly on the side of obtaining a global climate change agreement, reducing carbon emissions, and encouraging governments, citizens and parishioners to work to help the poor and provide sustainable development.

    The Pope's letter embraces science, accepting humanity's responsibility for climate change as fact and referring at times to biodiversity, ocean acidification, glacier melts, and the potential collapse of global fisheries. He also touches on social science, talking about the potential for water scarcity and environmental degradation to lead to future conflicts.

    Our youngest son is being baptized as a Catholic this weekend. I feel good knowing he is being baptized into a Church in which science is embraced, climate change and poverty are key social justice issues and Oscar Romero is on a path to sainthood. I don’t agree with every position the Church has, but Laudato Si is an important sign that the Pope is working to make sure its leadership is relevant in the 21st century.
  6. NYT:
    Undocumented workers in the Dominican Republic had until Wednesday to register their presence in the country, in the hope of being allowed to stay.

    The government says nearly 240,000 migrant workers born outside the Dominican Republic have started the registration process. But there are an estimated 524,000 foreign-born migrant workers in the country — about 90 percent of whom are Haitian, according to a 2012 survey — leaving a huge population of migrants at risk of deportation.
    One of the worst aspects of what is about to occur is that there are hundreds of thousands of people born in the Dominican Republic who have lost or are about to lose all claims to citizenship. The Dominican Republic has stripped their right to be citizens on the basis that they were born to undocumented Haitian migrants, but those people also have no claim to citizenship in Haiti or any other country.

    This is a case where the options at the international level aren't clear. There are many, many NGOs trying to pressure and shame the DR to halt the deportation process, but the government of President Medina doesn't appear to care about international criticisms (in fact, they are using the criticisms as proof of a pro-Haitian conspiracy). The position of deporting undocumented Haitian migrants and their children is sadly popular among the Dominican electorate.

    It would be nice if the US, other countries and international organizations would do more to pressure the DR, but that's really easy to say and a lot harder to do. What specific action do you want for pressure? More strongly worded statements? Another ruling from the Inter-American Court? Cuts in aid? Economic sanctions? Military response?

    The sad truth is that the range of potential responses the international community can consider to pressure the Dominican government range from ineffective to unethical. More public statements or court rulings aren't working. Stronger responses are likely to hurt the Dominican people more than its government and do more harm than good.

    But if nothing is done, then tens of thousands of stateless people are going to be deported from the Dominican Republic. It's not clear that they will be accepted by Haiti or have opportunities for citizenship there. In a worst case scenario (which is what we should try to avoid), this hemisphere could face a crisis similar to the Rohingya migrant issue in Southeast Asia.

    It's never fun as a foreign policy analyst to admit there are no good options, but that's the case here. If rhetorical pressure can't convince the DR government to do the right thing, then we're left weighing a set of bad options and outcomes against each other to determine which is the least-bad.
  7. The NYT sums up the case for aid to Central America in the final paragraph of its editorial:
    The United States can afford to play a bigger, more constructive role in helping Central American nations. Letting the problems fester will inevitably mean that people seeking safety and a better life will keep heading north in large numbers, which will continue to drive up the cost of keeping them out.
    Customs and border patrol has a budget of $12 billion this year, double what it was ten years ago. The Republicans in the US Congress talk about wanting a more secure border, but they won't acknowledge that a billion in aid to Central America is going to bring far greater returns to US security than a billion to CBP (or, as I wrote last week, a billion more to Afghanistan and Iraq).

    Others have made this argument as well. On a simple cost-benefit basis, we are likely to get far better results out of investing in Central American security and economic development than we will in more border guards and technology. From a security perspective, to the extent we worry about bad actors crossing the border, it is easier to identify and stop those individuals when there aren't waves of tens of thousands of refugees fleeing.
  8. The US Congress has taken President Obama's $1 billion dollar assistance package to Central America and cut assistance back to where it was in previous years, essentially restoring the security side of CARSI without the economic development assistance or institution building that made the request a potential success. The Congress have also placed some harsh restrictions on the assistance, focused more on stopping migration via government enforcement than improving security or livelihoods.

    At an event at the Wilson Center earlier this week, Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson said that the cuts by the US Congress, the plan to only keep the security portion of the aid, would be a "recipe for disaster."

    I agree.

    Recent political and security crises in the Northern Triangle have made the job of selling this aid package much harder. Congress doubts the aid package can be used effectively. As Tim Padgett writes, it's hard to argue for giving the region one billion dollars when the most recent corruption scandals in the region raise questions about what will happen to that money. The most recent scandal  in Honduras involved embezzlement of $200 million, hundreds of millions have been lost to government officials in an Alba Petroleos scheme in El Salvador, and top Guatemalan government officials are having bank accounts with millions of dollars frozen during corruption investigations.

    However, the real problems aren't those scandals. If those scandals didn't exist, Congress would find other excuses. Similar scandals on a larger scale exist in countries where the US has thrown far more money for the last decade and a half. The problem is that most members of Congress do not view the political or security crises in Central America as directly relevant to US interests. The same Congressmen who argue for more resources for fighting ISIS or stabilizing Afghanistan, want to nitpick about whether Central American assistance might be effective.

    For example, on top of the typical half trillion dollar defense spending request, President Obama asked for $50 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds (essentially, a slush fund for military operations related to what was once called the war on terror, almost none of which goes to operations in the Western Hemisphere). Congress didn't ask whether that money would be used effectively. In fact, it added $38 billion to that request to counteract other military cuts.

    That's almost $90 billion in OCO funding that Congress passed after some limited debate while it cuts back a $1 billion request to improve security much closer to the US. As I wrote one year ago, before the Obama administration's CentAm request:
    Why are we spending $2 billion this year on Syria and the refugee crisis faced by its neighbors but we're stumbling over whether CARSI funds for Central America will be $130 or $160 million? How does $20 billion for Afghanistan become a budget estimation error, yet we can't reappropriate 5% of that estimate to our neighbors in Central America? Why do Middle East pundits get to talk about billions in additional aid to Iraqi security forces that turned and ran at the first sign of a real fight while Latin Americanists struggle to get a few million more for police reform in Guatemala and Honduras? Did you know that USAID has a $4 billion budget for Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan this year; Where is that level of money for Latin America?
    This year, we're dealing with the same questions with slightly different numbers. For example, Congress is proposing that the US spend more on the Afghan National Police salaries this year than it will spend in its entire military and civilian aid request to Central America. That's ridiculous. 

    In spite of whatever corruption scandal is in the news, there is no reason that Latin Americanists can't win an argument that a billion spent in Central America will be far more effective than a billion more spent in Afghanistan or Iraq. The people who care about Latin America in Washington DC need to stop being polite and frame the debate in those terms.
  9. Greg links to this Bloomberg article about protests spreading around Latin America, but questions the article's claim that the protests are connected to the commodity bust.

    Over the years, I've occasionally linked to the FAO food price index and I've copied here the most recent chart published last week.

    Historically, protests correlate with commodity booms far more than commodity busts. Increased food prices and energy prices tend to hit the poor hard, which means when those commodity prices rise, there are greater numbers of protests in much of the developing world. Even protests that aren't directly related to food or fuel prices tend to increase in times of commodity booms.

    Of course, as the chart on the left shows, that's not true right now in June 2015. We're at a five year low on food prices and near that level on energy prices, but seeing protests around the region.

    For a major commodity producer like Brazil, Venezuela or Chile, there are reasons the link between commodity prices and protests is more complex. For example, Brazil's boom years allowed its economy to prosper, brought millions to the middle class and funded a social safety net for the poor. The bust in commodity prices has hit government spending and the availability of jobs, which could help explain protests (though the fact some of the largest protests include more wealthy than poor might help disprove that too).

    However, Central America and the Caribbean are largely commodity importers, meaning linking the protests in Guatemala or Honduras to the drop in commodity prices doesn't appear to make sense. Those countries' governments and economies should be benefiting from the lower oil and food prices, but the protests are increasing anyway.
  10. In March I wrote:
    Guyana President Ramotar must know the potential consequences of sparking a border dispute with Venezuela right when President Maduro is looking for a foreign adversary. That's probably why he's doing it. With his popularity down, Guyana President Ramotar may be hoping that the drilling sparks some international controversy that can distract from his domestic problems and build a bit of nationalistic pride before the election.
    The surprising thing was that Maduro didn't take the bait. Venezuela made some light comments about the issue, but really didn't say or do anything significant before the election to give Ramotar the issue.

    On 20 May, after the election, Exxon announced a major oil discovery. And the Maduro government was enraged. This has started a back and forth escalation of diplomatic notes, angry words and cancelled flights in recent weeks.

    Maduro is doing his best to make this about Exxon rather than Guyana. Why? Because all of Caricom and most of UNASUR backs Guyana in its territorial claim. Maduro's years as foreign minister have at least informed him that Venezuela will fight a losing battle if it tries to claim sovereign control over Guyana's disputed territory. On the other hand, the international community loves negotiations. So Maduro is playing up the fact that Exxon is unilaterally drilling in an area and disrupting the ongoing negotiations over the territorial dispute. It's an argument that makes the international oil company the bad guy (generally a good tactic) and could carry more weight at the international organizations that live for a good negotiation.

    However, the drilling is certainly Guyana's decision far more than it is Exxon's. President Granger announced his support for the energy project immediately upon taking the job. Granger's government is standing up to Maduro on this issue, criticizing the Venezuelan government and threatening to "vigorously resist" any attempt by Venezuela to exercise authority in the area. In addition, the now opposition PPP have announced their support for Granger on this issue, giving the new president a unified political front on a key international issue.

    This isn't the first time Venezuela has made claims over Guyana. President Chavez escalated the dispute in 2000 over false claims the US military planned a base in the disputed territory (it was actually a private satellite company). Chavez also added the eighth star to the Venezuelan flag to represent the province of Guyana. In 2013, Venezuela's Navy intercepted an oil exploration ship in Guyana's waters.

    Venezuela insists that it is not considering military force and that any suggestion that military force might be used is an attempt to create a fake crisis. That's good. The only way this escalates to a physical confrontation is if Venezuela chooses to use military force. The OAS, Caricom and UNASUR should hold Venezuela to its word that military force is off the table in this diplomatic dispute.
Loading