1. Ten years ago, in January 2007, I wrote on this blog that I was supporting Barack Obama for president. That same day I contributed to his presidential campaign. I've never regretted that decision. As he leaves the presidency today, I just wanted to write that I'm thankful for the efforts of the president and his team. Over the past eight years, President Obama has improved the United States domestically and around the world.

    Still, we have more work to do. So to quote Obama as president one final time:
    I do have one final ask of you as your President -- the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago. I'm asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change -- but in yours.

    I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes, we can.  
  2. WSJ:
    Only 9% of those questioned, meanwhile, approved of Mr. Peña Nieto’s ability to fight the country’s pervasive corruption, and 85% believed the tax raised from gasoline would be badly used.

    “The gasoline price hike is the culmination of popular anger at the suspicions of systematic corruption on all levels,” says Lorenzo Meyer, a historian at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
    I lead with those two paragraphs because they provide a very important explanation as to why President Peña Nieto's approval ratings have fallen. Meyer is absolutely correct in saying that the Mexican population, fairly or not, has linked the rise in gas prices with the unresolved corruption scandals during EPN's term.

    The Reforma poll on which that and other articles are based shows Peña Nieto with 12% approval and 86% disapproval. That is an absolute low point in the modern era for Mexican presidents, who generally receive far better approval ratings, even when the population is unhappy with the direction of the country. There isn't much precedent for how that extremely low approval will impact Peña Nieto's ability to govern.

    The poll also shows AMLO's Morena leading the 2018 national election with 27%, followed by the PAN at 24%, PRI at 17% and PRD and "independents" each taking 10%. That's a five point gain for Morena in the past month, largely driven by the gas price issue.

  3. In an interview with Reuters, Brazil President Michel Temer says there is "zero" chance of him being forced out of office due to ongoing corruption probes. Though I would rarely expect any president to suggest otherwise, that is obviously not correct. The chances of Temer being forced out before his term is up are relatively high. The fact he was asked about it and felt the need to give a serious response is generally a bad sign.

    Temer also indicates that unemployment, not corruption, is his key concern this year. In that, he is correct. Corruption investigations are important, but the mood of the population is a far more important issue for the stability of a government than the technicalities of any given investigation. Temer's ability to remain president this year and get key legislation passed will almost certainly depend on improving the economy and jobs situation in Brazil.
  4. Colombia Reports:
    Gabriel Garcia, who was director of an institute that managed roadway concessions and later Uribe’s vice minister of transport, is the first person arrested in connection with investigations into bribes by Odebrecht.

    “The prosecutor general has evidence that Mr. Garcia sought payment of $6.5 million to guarantee that Odebrecht was the company chosen for the Ruta del Sol Dos, excluding other competitors,” attorney general Nestor Humberto Martinez told reporters.
    Colombian authorities have arrested a former senator for allegedly taking $4.6 million in bribes to help Odebrecht SA win a road-building contract, as fallout from a massive corruption scandal continues to bite Latin America's No. 1 engineering firm.

    Otto Bula Bula, a Liberal Party senator until 2002, was tasked by Odebrecht with ensuring a certain number of higher-priced tolls were included in a contract to build the Ocaña-Gamarra highway, Colombia's Attorney General's office said late on Saturday.
    Colombia is taking the Odebrecht scandal seriously, using the evidence to investigate and prosecute former officials. This shouldn't be remarkable. It should be what every country named in the scandal does.
  5. I used to be fairly dismissive of reports that Russia had specific and targeted intentions to influence the politics of the Western Hemisphere, but the events of the past 18 months have begun to change my mind. Given recent success in the US and Europe, why not try to influence elections in Mexico or Brazil or Ecuador or Chile? Why not try to break up the OAS and other inter-American institutions the way Russia is targeting NATO? To speculate that Russia has those goals and may place resources towards those goals does not mean they will succeed. However, I do think the story of Russia’s agenda in the Western Hemisphere deserves more attention in the coming four years than I provided it in the previous eight.

    With that thought in mind, a few additional unfiltered ideas that I’m working through.

    It is worth considering what Russia’s goals might be. I think too many analysts would jump to the conclusion that Russia wants AMLO in Mexico or Lula in Brazil without considering the alternatives. Remember that this is no longer about left vs right. Russia supported Trump in the US and is happy to support far-right and far-left candidates in Europe that meet their objectives. They want to discredit the democratic system and they want candidates that support their international goals. With that in mind, taking this out of the left-right framework, let’s start thinking about what those objectives may be and which candidates from the left, right, center or outside the spectrum might be their preferred options.

    The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over. It’s not the US’s job to stop Russia or China or others from operating in Latin America. Every country has a right to have relationships and investments with whomever they want. However, the hemisphere should also have an interest in democracy, human rights, anti-corruption and greater regional integration. Opposing illegitimate foreign influence in elections and policymaking that attempts to undermine those hemispheric values should be a goal of the whole hemisphere. The US has not always stood up for those values in the past, but that can’t be used as an excuse for local politicians or foreign powers (including the US) to undercut those values in the present or future.

    I worry about how the previous two paragraphs conflict with each other. I’m concerned about Russia’s influence in Latin America and want to work to stop some very negative outcomes of that influence, but I don’t want a renewed Monroe Doctrine justified with that concern. The US (both the US government and US civil society organizations outside of government) need to manage a very careful balance on that front. Overreaching and creating a more interventionist US policy towards the hemisphere could play right into the hands of US opponents regionally and globally. Sitting back and failing to provide any leadership may also play into the hands of US opponents. As I wrote, it will require a careful balance.

    Journalism and civil society are needed more than ever. Transparent media reporting and deep investigations into the money and power influencing the political system are some of the limited safeguards that exist outside of government institutions.
  6. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen met with Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega for nearly two hours this week. It was a surprise meeting, catching journalists and even diplomats from Taiwan off-guard as it was arranged at the last minute. Tsai is touring Central America and attempting to shore up support. There are concerns that another country (rumors point to Nicaragua or Dominican Republic) will recognize Beijing in the near future. Ortega, for his part, promised to fight for Taiwan's recognition moving forward.
  7. Donald Trump didn't talk about many substantive issues during yesterday's press conference, but he did stress two points that are relevant to Latin America, especially Mexico. The first is that he will implement a border tax on companies that produce outside the US. His focus was on car companies that move plants overseas, but without details, this could impact a variety of industries. The second is that he expects Mexico to in some way reimburse payments for the border wall that he plans to construct.

    I know analysts who dismiss both ideas as very unlikely, especially the second one. Mexico has insisted they will not pay for the wall. But Trump has long said that the payment may not be a direct payment, but rather some form of tariff or tax on trade or money transfers.

    Trump has very few detailed policy proposals. Most of his administration's coming policies towards the region are completely undefined. His ability to focus on only a small number of issues at one time means that many issues will not be defined by him, but by his cabinet and bureaucracy. But the fact he takes the time to talk about these two proposals for Mexico means that he is serious about finding some way to get them done. The election is over and analysts should not dismiss these policies as unrealistic. Some version of them is likely to happen.
  8. One week into 2017, Mexico faces two simultaneous crises. One is the public anger over the increase in gas prices (NYT, Guardian). The second is the potential economic impact of the incoming US administration and its trade policies. Specifically, those trade policies threaten the auto industry, which has been critical to Mexico’s economic growth in recent years (WSJ). More generally, those trade policies threaten the entire manufacturing sector including the border maquila industry.

    The Mexican government shouldn’t conflate these crises. They have different roots and will require different solutions. The Mexican public certainly sees a difference in the problems and fully blames the government for the gas price increase while only partially blaming the government for its failure to better manage relations with its northern neighbor.

    President Peña Nieto’s distance and poor management of both of these issues is part of the ongoing problem. While many of the responses to his rhetorical “what would you have done?” question were biting, they also contained some significant truths. Governments can’t reward politicians with giant Christmas bonuses while citizens suffer. The fact that numerous former governors of the PRI party stole hundreds of millions of dollars and remain free from prison is not separate from the country’s current economic challenges. Imposing a gas price hike just years after promising energy reform would avoid gas price hikes may be economically necessary, but the contradiction between 2013’s energy reform ad campaigns and 2017’s results cannot just be waved away as irrelevant.

    No government is particularly good at solving two crises at the same time. Attempting to find an elegant solution that somehow fixes both challenges is a dangerous temptation that likely leads to no positive movement on either problem. Separate the challenges, find solutions, and treat the current situation like a governing crisis, giving both challenges the attention they deserve.
  9. Venezuela President Maduro named Tareck El Aissami his new vice president yesterday. The vice president has little official power, but is an incredibly important position as of this month. Prior to this month, if Maduro resigned or died, the constitution requires new elections (though whether those new elections would have been held was a matter of debate). As of this month, the vice president will finish the president's term. Maduro's biggest threat has always been a coup from within his own party. But the fact Maduro can be removed without new elections makes that threat larger.

    A VP change this month was expected, but naming Tareck, someone who faces numerous criminal and corruption allegations, was not.

    Perhaps Maduro thinks that having Tareck as VP makes his removal less likely. Or perhaps the corrupt leadership within the PSUV is finally ready to take control.
  10. Good news: Colombia's homicide rate in 2016 was 24.4 per 100,000 population. That is a 4% reduction from 2015, representing 500 fewer deaths. It's the lowest murder rate in 40 years.

    Bad news: Via today's WashPost (which matches local media reports in recent months), there is "a pattern of attacks on left-wing activists, indigenous leaders, human rights advocates and members of Marcha Patriótica, with the pace picking up in recent months as the government finalized a controversial peace accord with Marxist FARC rebels to end Latin America’s longest-running conflict."

    So even as Colombia has made significant progress at creating a more secure country for the broader population, there remains a problem of targeted killings of individuals who are politically important to the country's long term democracy and stability.