1. This blog, two weeks ago, on a potential Chavista military coup in Venezuela:
    One of the things that concerns me about Venezuela's stability today is that there is an entire generation of military officers trained to believe that the coup on 4 February 1992 was a heroic act by a man who eventually became president. Unlike the rest of South America, where militaries have been warned away from coups and punished (at least mildly) for their legacies, Venezuela's official military doctrine for the last 15 years says there is a difference between a good military coup and a bad military coup. They've been given a model for what a "good coup" looks like....

    ...I believe a military coup in Venezuela would be a tragedy and a disaster, a large blow against democratic values in a country that has already seen its democracy degraded significantly. However, that view isn't what Venezuela's military is taught.
    Uruguay President Jose Mujica today in interview with El Pais:
    "El problema que puede tener Venezuela es que nos podemos ver frente a un golpe de Estado de militares de izquierda, y con eso la defensa democrática se va al carajo. Sería un gravísimo error que se salieran de la Constitución"
    It's a good sign that Uruguay's president (leaving office next week) is willing to publicly mention this issue. As I wrote a year ago, Maduro's biggest threat is from an internal battle in Chavismo forcing him out of power. While there are plenty of non-military ways that threat could materialize, it also includes the potential that some Chavista colonel or general sees himself as the savior of Hugo Chavez's legacy. If possible, the international community needs to prevent that nightmare scenario from occurring.
  2. Manuel Rueda at Fusion has an important and under-reported story about oil spills and pollution in the jungles of Peru affecting indigenous populations who live on the rivers that eventually make up the Amazon.

    These disputes involve some complex legal battles as well as a media and protest strategy to gain visibility.

    In 2011, I wrote about local vs national disputes like these:
    National governments feel they have a right to extract resources to help the country's economy while locals often see disproportionate harm, want more say into how it is done, and want to benefit more from the development. This local vs national clash doesn't go away, whether there is a right-wing or left-wing president in office.
    Unfortunately, Humala did not work to resolve these disputes 2-3 years ago when Peru's economy was doing well. Now with the economy hurting and the price of commodities down, his ability to act will be limited by the larger concerns over the country's growth.

    As the article correctly notes, even if energy companies use cleaner technology today, their practice of building roads through the jungle also indirectly harms the local environment. Those roads become the routes used by illicit traffickers and illegal mining operations who cause enormous environmental damage and cannot be regulated at even the minimum levels that the private sector must observe.
  3. A poll from Cadem shows Chile President Bachelet's approval rating falling to 31%, down nine points in just a week. Her disapproval rating was up 8 points to 54%.

    The main explanation for a move was the news that the president's son, Sebastian Davalos, and his wife met with the head of Banco de Chile, Andronico Luksic, and had received a fast tracked loan for US$10 million immediately after her election in December 2013. They used the money to purchase property that they later sold for approximately US$15 million, a nice profit.

    The poll also shows that 70% believe that Davalos used insider information or his position as the president's son to obtain the loan and 60% do not believe President Bachelet's claim that she knew nothing about the loan before the scandal appeared in the media. That lack of trust in the president is a number that will remain with her for some time, even if this immediate scandal goes away.
  4. NYT:
    As Cuba opens the door wider to private enterprise, the gap between the haves and have-nots, and between whites and blacks, that the revolution sought to diminish is growing more evident.
    Inequality, already bad in Cuba, will worsen with increased remittances and US travel to the country that will benefit those citizens who are best placed to take advantage. While the Cuban government and its supporters like to praise the social safety net that exists, the article also includes important details such as:
    Many still live as virtual refugees in their own country, in neighborhoods like Little Swamp, unable to register for government services like ration books because it is almost impossible to change addresses without prior authorization.
    The poverty and inequality described in this article could create pressure for change that comes from a different vector than the pro-democracy dissident groups in the country. If the Castro government loses the support of the poor, if conditions ever degrade to the point where the neighborhoods like Little Swamp protest, that would be a bigger stability threat for the country. I'm fairly certain Raul Castro and his inner circle know that. While there are no indications that any sort of protests from these groups will happen in the immediate future, it's also the type of situation in which little warning would be available before the protests occurred.
  5. Four political parties in Honduras - the Liberal Party, Libre, Anti-Corruption Party (PAC) and PINU - signed an agreement to form an alliance, calling themselves the Coalición Nacional Opositora.

    Claiming that they represent 68% of the population, about the amount of combined votes the four parties received in the last election, the parties promise to act in Congress to oppose the agenda of President Juan Orlando Hernandez including his alleged push for reelection.

    Let me describe why this is surprising:
    1) One of the better ways to conceptually understand the 2009 coup is that it was an internal political fight within the Liberal Party in which President Zelaya lost out to other party power brokers (such as Michelletti, Santos, Villeda and Rosenthal). Zelaya later formed the Libre political party to represent his supporters, an attempt to break away from what he views as a coup-organizing Liberal Party that betrayed him. The Liberal Party elites and political base largely view Zelaya as a corrupt dissident who attempted an illegal power grab as president. The relationship is not a good one.

    2) Salvador Nasralla formed the PAC to represent a new and different organization separate from what he viewed as the corrupt oligarchy represented by the National Party, Liberal Party and Zelaya. His entire political platform is based on being different and new compared to the other political parties and leaders, which makes working with them difficult.

    3) Manuel Zelaya, Maruicio Villeda, the head of the Liberal Party, and Salvador Nasralla all dislike each other on a personal level. They all campaigned hard against each other in the 2013 election, with Zelaya's wife Xiomara Castro coming in 2nd, Villeda in 3rd and Nasralla in 4th place. They each have allies and backers begging them to not work with each other.

    Yet, here those three men are signing an alliance to oppose President Hernandez. The Liberals and Libre leadership are whitewashing their dispute over the coup. There are even rumors the two parties are negotiating to put forward a single candidate for the 2017 elections. The PAC is agreeing to work with both parties in spite of previous insistence they are corrupt. It's an unlikely political alliance made necessary because they all feel threatened by the power, influence and popularity of the current president.

    While the new opposition coalition leaders are correct that JOH only received 37% and his party 33% in the election, the president is over 50% support at the moment according to the polls. Hernandez currently controls public opinion and the levers of power in the country. Even a unified opposition has an uphill battle.
  6. The polling firm Management & Fit has President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner's approval rating at 30%, down from 33% last month. Her disapproval rating increased from 59% to 64%. Similarly, Perfil says CFK's approval rating is 29%, down four points from the previous poll.

    Those are small movements for CFK. They are significant in that nearly every polling firm had CFK's approval ratings rising up in December, and that upswing seems to have at least stopped, if not reversed, since the death of Alberto Nisman. However, a 3-4 point move isn't a major drop for her, as has been portrayed by some media. Her supporters in late 2014 still like her.

    The M&F poll shows Macri in a narrow first place for the first time in this election cycle. Their February poll has Macri 28, Scioli 24, Massa 19.

    Alternatively, a poll by González y Valladares taken earlier this month has Massa 31, Scioli 25, Macri 23.

    I could continue listing relatively unknown polling firms and their rumored numbers that I've found online (including a few that show a narrow Scioli lead), but it's fair to say that there is a clear narrative.

    There are three candidates - Massa, Macri and Scioli - who are all polling in the 20's. They're jockeying for position, but none are pulling into a conclusive lead (say, above 40%). Many voters remain undecided. The Nisman death hasn't significantly changed the race yet, though it seems to have been a minor hit to Scioli and his campaign.
  7. Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma was arrested by Venezuelan intelligence yesterday. The arrest occurred almost exactly one year after the detention of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who remains a political prisoner and has been recently moved to solitary confinement in a two meter square cell. It also occurs one week after allegations of a coup plot.

    Why was Ledezma arrested? A few theories:
    1) The coup issue. Maduro and his allies really believe Ledezma was behind a coup attempt. Paranoia is a powerful motivator.

    2) Intimidation. Maduro hopes to send a message to other opposition politicians that they need to pull back their activism or face the same fate as Lopez and Ledezma.

    3) Repression. This is part of a traditional and obvious attempt to repress the opposition by arresting their leaders one by one over the course of the coming months or years.

    4) Election move. In a recent Caracas Chronicles post, Toro argued that Maduro would cancel the elections this year because he can't win. Maduro probably wants elections to go on, but his best case scenario would be for the opposition to make the same error they did in 2005 and not participate. Alternatively, he can lock up the most popular and best known opposition politicians so they can't participate. Jailing Ledezma could be an attempt at both goals, which would put the government in a better election position.

    5) Distraction. Talking about politics and coup plots is better public relations for Maduro than talking about the economy. Goading the opposition into a debate over democracy again means that they are not talking about the crime and economic challenges that average citizens face every day.

    The above aren't mutually exclusive.
  8. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush gave a foreign policy speech this week, an early entry into the 2016 presidential race. He made few comments on Latin America, only noting that he disagreed with President Obama's recent negotiations with Cuba. 

    However, Jeb Bush's foreign policy advisor list says volumes about his potential policies in the region. Four names, in particular, will stand out to anyone who cares about Latin America:
    • Otto Reich
    • Roger Noriega
    • John Negroponte
    • Lincoln Diaz-Balart
    What that list of advisors says is that Jeb's Latin America policy is going to look a lot like his brother's policies in the 2000's and US policies towards the region in the 1980's. 

    With Bush locking in four of the best known Latin America hands of the GOP establishment, it will be interesting to see who other likely Republican candidates bring in to lead their foreign policy on that front.
  9. The FARC announced that they would no longer recruit any combatants under the age of 17. Previously, the FARC officially recruited minors as young as 15 and there is plenty of evidence of children as young as 12 or 13 entering their ranks.

    Near the bottom of the Miami Herald article is this quote:
    Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón said that of the 17,345 guerrillas who demobilized between 2012 and 2014 a full 8,799 — or 51 percent — said they were recruited while they were still minors.
    I've seen similar numbers showing that around half of those recruited were minors, and that number has increased significantly in recent years. However, the demobilization numbers didn't look correct to me (I'm going to give Pinzon the benefit of the doubt and guess he misstated the years or was misheard by the reporter).

    Fortunately, the Colombia Ministry of Defense has a security statistics document on their website.

    The Colombian government registered 3,839 demobilizations from 2012-2014. Those are members of the FARC or ELN who turned themselves in to government forces and said they wanted to demobilize. The military also claims they detained or captured 8,635 FARC or ELN members during that time period and killed 1,076.

    That's 13,550 combatants who have been "neutralized" (to use the Colombian military's term) in the past three years. It's a startling number because that number is higher than the combined estimated strength of the two groups right now (probably 9,000 combatants for the FARC and 3,000 for the ELN). That means:

    1. There is a very high turnover rate within the groups. A significant percentage of the combatants are relatively new (and, arguably, the groups are recruiting minors to fill the ranks of those they have lost because minors are easier to coerce into the group and easier to control and prevent from deserting once they are in).
    2. There are people who are demobilizing or being captured who claim to be members of the FARC/ELN who are not.
    3. Everyone is underestimating the size of the FARC and ELN and the groups are larger than claimed.
    4. The Colombian military is artificially boosting their statistics.
    I would guess all four of those points are true to some extent. 

    Point one is almost certainly true and the main explanation, though the turnover rate cannot be high enough (over 100% in three years) to explain the full number of captured and demobilized. On point two, there may be some criminals who are captured and see a benefit in being counted as a guerrilla, hoping to fall under the terms of the peace deal. On point three, there may be some smaller groups (criminal or ideological) out there who claim to be members of the FARC or ELN but don't actually fall under the command structure of the groups. Point four is troubling if true, whether it occurs at the field level or command level, but probably can't account for more than 10-20% of the numbers even if it is occurring.

    Back to the original quote, 17,000 could be the number of FARC combatants who demobilized in the past 10 years. That is close to accurate according to this document. It is also, when you remember the FARC only had 20,000 members at their peak (around the year 2000), an enormous blow to the organization and a challenge for the government. It means the Colombian government is currently dealing with more individually demobilized FARC combatants than will fall under the demobilization process that will hopefully occur following the current peace negotiations. There are also thousands of detained FARC combatants who may have some right to a demobilization process.

    These numbers matter when you return to the original point: Over 50% of the FARC's current membership was recruited when they were minors. Many (more than 30%) are still under 18. This is a specific demobilization and reintegration challenge for the Colombian government and the FARC. While the average age of the negotiators in Cuba is probably mid to late 50's, thousands of the combatants who will demobilize are minors and nearly all of the combatants are young men and women in their teens and 20's.

    When the peace talks began in August 2012 I wrote:
    Start thinking about the child soldier issue early. There are thousands of child combatants among the FARC ranks, some as young as 12-14 years old. While the images of peace negotiations will be old men sitting at a table talking politics, the people who need to disarm and demobilize are the minors who care little about politics and are unprepared for civilian life. The older members of the FARC leadership cannot be allowed to dodge or ignore this issue. The manner and conditions in which the FARC's child soldiers demobilize will be key points for lasting peace in Colombia.
    That remains true today. I'm glad the FARC made their announcement on stopping the recruitment of children under 17, but it's barely the first step. The peace talks are progressing on the topics that matter to the old ideologues (land reform, drug policy, political integration), but they haven't touched on this question of how the sides are going to demobilize thousands of teenage combatants and prepare them for civilian life. Colombia's future peace depends on getting that issue correct.
  10. A prosecutor in Argentina has decided to indict President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Foreign Minister Hector Timmerman, Congressman Andres Larroque and piquetero leader Luis D’Elia. The indictment claims those four individuals worked to cover up Iran's role in the 1994 AMIA bombing that killed 85 people. It is based on the evidence collected by Alberto Nisman before his death.

    Obviously, an indictment is still a long way from a conviction and in the politicized environment of Argentina there is more to this issue than the evidence that will be presented in court.

    The president's supporters have gone as far as to call the indictment a form of "judicial coup." However, the president almost certainly retains enough to support in Congress to avoid any impeachment threat.

    It's not every day in Latin America that a sitting president is indicted. Not to be forgotten and complicating the situation, Vice President Boudou has also been indicted on unrelated corruption charges (Spiro Agnew analogies are fair game here) and his political future remains uncertain.