1. Bloomberg has a good article on the power, influence and perks that the Venezuelan military has under President Maduro. It includes:
    Since Maduro came to power 17 months ago, the armed forces have created their own television channel, housing program and bank, the only military-owned one outside Iran and Vietnam. A third of Venezuela’s 28 ministers and half the state governors are now active or retired officers, mostly companions of former paratroop commander and late President Hugo Chavez.
    The article also mentions the ridiculous statistic that there is one general for every 34 members of the Venezuelan Armed Forces, a top heavy structure that points to political favoritism and comes with its own problems.

    Many analysts in the article and elsewhere view the perks of the Venezuelan military as an attempt at political stability, as President Maduro attempts to buy off the group that could potentially threaten his hold on power. That is the most likely explanation. Of course, the alternative hypothesis is worse: that the military already runs so much of the country that Maduro really has no ability to control the perks that they obtain.
  2. Leopoldo Lopez, whose status as political prisoner received a mention yesterday from President Obama in a speech on civil society, gave an interview this week in which he defended his actions and talked about former President Chavez's time in prison.

    This made me wonder: How many Latin American presidents have spent time in prison? How many have attempted to push out a government through non-electoral means (as Lopez was arguably calling for with #LaSalida)?

    In 2006, I wrote a few posts on presidential backgrounds trying to classify various leaders. For the lists below, I'm only dealing with current presidents. I'm not making judgements as to whether their actions were right or wrong, just looking at backgrounds.

    Current Presidents who spent significant time (more than a day) in detention or prison:
    Michelle Bachelet, Horacio Cartes, Raul Castro, Evo Morales, Jose Mujica, Daniel Ortega, Dilma Rousseff

    Current Presidents who have military experience or participated as armed fighters in a rebellion:
    Military experience: Ollanta Humala, Evo Morales, Otto Perez Molina, Juan Manuel Santos,
    Armed Rebellion: Raul Castro, Ollanta Humala, Jose Mujica, Daniel Ortega, Salvador Sanchez Ceren

    Current Presidents who actively participated in any non-electoral attempt to oust a government (democratic or not):
    Raul Castro, Juan Orlando Hernandez, Ollanta Humala, Evo Morales, Jose Mujica, Daniel Ortega, Otto Perez Molina, Dilma Rousseff, Salvador Sanchez Ceren

    Doing this sort of list does involve some sort of judgement call (should Dilma be considered an armed fighter if she only supported an armed group?) I may edit these lists in the coming days if readers have good arguments for corrections or additions. 
  3. Two facts out of today's NYT story on Central American migrants:

    • "Last month, 3,141 children traveling without a parent were apprehended at the United States-Mexico border, a 70 percent decrease from June."
    • "...word has gotten back to the region that the journey is getting harder and that migrants might not make it through Mexico. Mexican authorities have deported more than 38,000 Central Americans this year and now regularly send busloads and planes of detainees back to their countries."

    In July I wrote the following:
    US politicians need to understand that the real crisis is not the fact there are suddenly tens of thousands of additional migrants/refugees crossing the border to the United States. The crisis is that there are at least three countries in this hemisphere where tens of thousands of people feel the security and economic conditions are so bad that they need to flee or to send their children alone in the hope they can find a better life. The conditions on our border are only a symptom of that crisis further south.
    The fact that the number of migrant refugees reaching the US border has decreased does not mean that there is no longer a security or refugee crisis continuing in Central America. The fact that the journey from the Guatemalan border to the US border is difficult and dangerous is not a measurement of success for US policy.
  4. The Washington Post and New York Times have similar editorials this Sunday about the situation in Venezuela. After recounting the abuses of the Maduro government including the detention of political prisoners and the sham trial of Leopoldo Lopez, both editorials turn towards the issue of the UN Security Council seat that I wrote about two weeks ago. In that, there is a difference between the editorials.

    Washington Post:
    The Obama administration could help itself and send a message to Mr. Maduro by rounding up the 65 votes needed to keep Venezuela off the Security Council.
    New York Times:
    Colombia, Brazil and other Latin American countries should lead an effort to prevent Caracas from representing the region when it is fast becoming an embarrassment on the continent.
    This is where the NYT has it right and the WP has it wrong. The countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, not the United States, are responsible for choosing which country will represent them at the UNSC. Given the abuses of democracy and human rights in Venezuela, as the NYT points out, there are plenty of arguments that the region's biggest players (Brazil, Colombia, Mexico) may wish to prevent Venezuela from embarrassing them on the international stage. There are also reasons that the diplomatic fight over the UN seat may not be worth the region's time.

    However, it's not the US's job in this case to lead the effort to stop Venezuela's nomination. If the region isn't going to lead on this issue, then a US push on it would be counter-productive. Whether Venezuela gets a UNSC seat is not a critical test of US foreign policy and, in spite of some heated rhetoric, is not going to change the global security environment over the next two years.

    I know it's a radical foreign policy position: Let Latin America and the Caribbean make their own decision and face the consequences accordingly. Maybe Venezuela's seat at the UNSC will amount to nothing important and the region will be happy with their choice. Maybe Venezuela will do something ridiculous and the region will regret its decision and learn from it. Either way, if nobody in the region is going to oppose Venezuela's nomination, the US is better off staying out of this one.
  5. Scotland voted no to independence. However, the fact that a longstanding European country came within a few percentage points of breaking apart raises an old question for me: When does Latin America's map change next? Does any geographic territory secede or vote for independence? Or do countries vote to merge in some way?

    The Western Hemisphere's map has changed very little over the past century, but that's not typical for either the hemisphere or the world, where political borders have shifted numerous times over centuries. It's possible that the hemisphere's borders don't move for another hundred years, but it's more probable that something disrupts the border stability and we see the emergence of a new country or federation before 2114, even if no single scenario is likely.
  6. Ten years ago today I wrote my first posts at bloggings by boz. It was a Saturday morning. I was more interested in trying out the technology than finding a platform for my writing. It was an experiment that was supposed to last a few weeks, maybe a few months at most. The idea that I’d be sitting in Mexico City writing this post in 2014 never crossed my mind.

    Writing this blog is a hobby. It’s done in my free time. Nobody pays me to do it. There is no editor or gatekeeper. Ten years later, it’s still an experiment.

    Thanks for reading.
  7. Former mayor Luis Castañeda is the clear favorite for the Lima mayoral election taking place on 5 October. He has 53% of the vote in a recent Ipsos poll, compared to 10% for incumbent mayor Susana Villaran and a bunch of other candidates sitting in single digits. Other polls agree. Datum gives Castañeda 55% and CPI has him at 50%.

    Castañeda remains popular from his time as mayor. His campaign has so far been able to avoid controversy, including an investigation into whether his office participated in drug money laundering during his previous term. His not-so-covert backing of the failed recall referendum against Villaran several years ago doesn't seem to harm his image with a majority of voters. He was also able to convince the electoral board to reinstate his candidacy after it had briefly thrown his name off the ballot for alleged errors on his resume.

    Villaran, on the other hand, only has 16% approval and has not been above 25% approval at any point this year. Those aren't numbers that make reelection easy for the current mayor of Lima. The business community has never been a fan and many on the left are disappointed in Villaran's lack of progress over her term in office.
  8. OSF has a new report mapping digital media around the world and offering analysis on how it has changed media environments and the debate over censorship. Among its conclusions:
    • Governments and politicians have too much influence over who owns, operates, and regulates the media.
    • Many media markets are rife with monopolistic, corrupt, or untransparent practices.
    • It’s not clear where many governments and other bodies get their evidence for changes or updates to laws and policies on media and communication.
    • Media and journalism online offer hope of new, independent sources of information, but are also a new battleground for censorship and surveillance.
    • Data about the media worldwide are still uneven, unstandardized, and unreliable, and are often proprietary rather than freely accessible.
    The first and second points are particularly relevant for the debate in Latin America. Some governments act undemocratically in trying to censor, claiming they are trying to break up corrupt monopolies. On the other side, corporate media monopolies are quick to claim censorship when debates about realistic regulations take place.

    However, as I wrote in an essay in 2012, the digital media revolution has moved this debate away from its previous zero sum game to one in which both governments and corporations have lost some of their previous control over the debate.
    That debate over the second threat largely occurs in a world of media scarcity. Governments and corporations talk about media as if it is a finite resource of spectrum, bandwidth, paper and ink that is to be shared, controlled, distributed and redistributed. It's a world in which the cost of publishing is very high and consumers of media have very little choice. Corporations can hold monopolies and governments can attempt to control. 
    Of course, as the existence of this blog proves, the media environment has changed in a fundamental way over the past two decades. We've moved from a world of media scarcity to one of media abundance. Any person with a connection to the internet can publish information and can find information others have published. The cost of publishing is approaching zero compared to the high costs of the world of media scarcity. 
    The most fascinating change in the media freedom debate over the past ten years is that both governments and corporations have lost some ground in what used to be a zero sum game between the two sides. Governments are losing control and influence and media corporations are losing profits and former information monopolies. The winners are citizens who enter this world of media abundance and become producers of content as well and consumers of a wider variety of content from around the globe.
    As the OSF report also writes, online platforms have given a boost to solid investigative reporting (in spite of also increasing the noise of fluff pieces and listicles). In Latin America, digital media owned by small companies and non-profits are the new investigative battleground rather than the traditional print and broadcast media of decades past. Encouraging and empowering those digital investigations and protecting digital media from government censorship efforts and violent threats from any group (government or criminal) is critical for media freedom advocates.

    Finally, as I also wrote in 2012, this digital media future remains unequally distributed. Reflecting income inequality, too many citizens in the hemisphere remain unconnected with the internet. While investigative reporting can influence the political debate and public opinion, traditional print and broadcast media, whether controlled by corporations or governments, still dominate the media that the average citizen encounters on a daily basis.

    Beyond debates over censorship and violence against journalists, getting more people connected online is the single biggest fight for media freedom that we can wage. That effort is about building technology as well as overcoming the basic economic inequality that affects many different aspects of governance in the hemisphere.
  9. AP reports that Venezuela has secured unanimous support from Latin America and the Caribbean for a rotating UN Security Council seat in 2015-2017 timeframe.
    While Venezuela must still muster a two-thirds majority in a secret ballot of 193 member nations at the U.N. General Assembly next month, the lack so far of a rival candidate from the region means the chances of its candidacy being derailed are slim, analysts say.
    Venezuela and Guatemala (backed by the US) engaged in a very divisive UN Security Council seat vote in 2006. The region divided and ended up coming to a compromise of Panama after several dozen rounds of voting.

    This detail from the AP should not be overlooked:
    Following that display of disunity [in 2006], regional governments agreed in private to alternate representation in a certain order. Under those procedures, it’s now Venezuela’s turn.
    While I'm sure some analysts want to view the choice of Venezuela as a blow to the US, Latin America and the Caribbean aren't doing this to send a message to their neighbor up north. Instead, the region has an agreement that means it's Venezuela's turn. Nobody from the region is standing up to challenge Venezuela's turn at this seat. While I'm sure some of the Maduro government opponents in Venezuela and the US want to find an alternative and then engage in a high profile diplomatic fight that would leave everyone feeling bitter and angry, we've all got better things to spend our time and political capital on.

    Another important note left out of the AP report: Venezuela will be replacing Argentina. While Venezuela's rhetoric will probably be sharper, their voting won't be that far off from the seat's current occupant. As the shift from Argentina to Venezuela isn't shifting the balance of voting on the UNSC much, it shouldn't worry the US.

    Venezuela's influence is waning regionally and its government has low support domestically. The country has high inflation, high crime, a shortage of supplies and can barely pay its own bills. The fact they will be able to launch verbal bombs from their UN Security Council seat won't help the Maduro government deal with those basic facts on the ground.

    Picking and choosing which diplomatic battles to fight is important. It's not worth the fight here.


    As a side note, my blog will hit ten years old next week. That means I have a long track record (over 4,300 posts!) that I can turn to when these sorts of events happen. When I read Venezuela was going to win the UNSC seat, I wondered "What did 2006 me write about this issue?" Here it is:
    I know exactly how Venezuela will act if they get voted in: Venezuela will abuse its seat on the UN Security Council. Their votes and their rhetoric will anger the world community, particularly on Iran. They'll probably send a UN representative who doesn't play by the usual diplomatic rules. Their agenda will be biased to help their own political whims. They'll hold countries to double standards, condemning alleged abuses of their enemies while ignoring those of their allies. They'll try to block or ignore resolutions they don't like. There will be many occasions they will vote in the clear minority. Their speeches will be short on facts and long on overhyped rhetoric. They'll try to buy votes using their wealth and will threaten to withhold aid when countries don't vote their way. They will continue to try to influence the politics of other nations. They'll use the UN where it is convenient and go around it when they can't get their way. 
    I certainly don't want a government acting like that on the UN Security Council. Unfortunately, I imagine the world community can only suppress laughter when the US makes those arguments against Venezuela being there.
  10. On the 13th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, it’s a good day to remember than NONE of the terrorists who attacked crossed illegally over the US-Mexico border. Further, there are no cases of a successful terrorist attack by Al Qaeda, Hezbollah or any other foreign terrorist group occurring on US soil in which the attacker entered through Mexico or the Caribbean. There are good reasons to improve border security against terrorist threats, but the historical record up to this point is that the terrorist threat to the US has not come via the border.

    In recent months, I’ve been asked numerous times what my assessment is of ISIS entering the US via the border to commit an attack. While it’s possible, it’s not likely for at least four reasons:

    1. Attacking the US is not the main focus of ISIS.

    ISIS is more focused on its local fight in the Middle East than it is on hitting the US homeland. While there have been discussions within the group about hitting the US, it’s a distant secondary goal compared to winning and controlling territory within the “caliphate” they have established in Syria and Iraq. The US is concerned about ISIS eventually building up enough strength and enough of a safe-haven to be a threat to the US homeland (and for good reason), but the group’s goals are more local for now. That reason isn’t directly related to the border, but it reduces the chances of attackers coming via that route.

    2. Traveling through Latin America and crossing the US border illegally is hard, particularly for a non-Latin migrant.

    There is a mistaken perception that because thousands of people annually cross the US-Mexico border illegally, that it is somehow easy to do. It’s not. It’s a difficult, costly and dangerous journey that has become much more difficult in recent years as border protections and technology have improved. As a sign of how much border protections have improved, this summer’s surge of Central American refugees was notable in that many of the people crossing were not attempting to evade US border protections. They were actively turning themselves in to border guards to be processed, something that an ISIS terrorist would probably not do.

    It becomes even more difficult for someone trying to come from the Middle East or North Africa into Latin America for that trip. Imagine some random Egyptian jihadi attempting to take a flight to Venezuela, hop on a bus to Colombia, work his way up the Central American coast or Pan-American highway to Mexico, get on the Beast train and then sneak across the border at night. What do you think the percentage success rates and failure rates on that sort of trip are, even with a willing and well-paid coyote? Certainly there are instances of people (nearly all economic migrants) attempting that trip and some succeeding, but the failure rate is high enough that if terrorists were attempting it in any significant numbers, the US or its allies in Latin America would be catching them on a regular basis. We’re not.

    3. Most (but not all) of the cartels and coyotes who facilitate the trafficking wouldn’t want to traffic a terrorist. It brings too much attention of US authorities and is bad for business.

    The major cartels and trafficking groups, including the Zetas and Sinaloa Cartel, are incentivized to not move a real terrorist through the border area. They are fully aware that trafficking a terrorist into the US would be the quickest way to gain the full attention and reaction of the US government. Even the Zetas, who aren’t particularly cautious in their use of brutality and force, aren’t dumb enough to think they could survive a focused US effort to beat them if we were ever motivated to do so by a terrorist attack.

    Now, just because the top leadership of the big cartels know that it would be a really bad idea to smuggle a terrorist or WMD doesn’t mean that every freelance coyote agrees. The message has likely gotten around to the smaller level traffickers. As Sam Logan (my business partner) tells Fusion, ”If a coyote were responsible for a [smuggling] route being shut down, that person is going to pay the consequences, which in this world could be a bullet to the head.” Even then, there are probably a few out there willing to make a quick buck on the deal assuming they could dodge the consequences, and those people definitely concern me. However, we’re talking about a relatively small percentage of the illicit trafficking facilitators who are going to be willing to do this sort of activity. It’s not as if any terrorist could walk into a marketplace in Honduras, ask to be moved across a border and find a willing coyote to do so on the first try. That person is going to attract attention.

    4. There are easier, legal routes to enter the US than illegally crossing the border, particularly for potential terrorists with US or European passports who are a top concern for counter-terrorism officials.

    If someone has a US or European passport, then they aren’t going to be crossing the US-Mexico border under the cover of darkness. The reason counter-terrorism experts worry about those people is that they have the documents to potentially make a legal border crossing or enter through an airport. A terrorist with decent documents is not going to risk the trip through Zetas' territory (probably kidnapped and extorted in the process) and then try to sneak past border guards. They’re going to try to come in legally right under our noses or use someone recruited virtually who plans an attack without ever leaving the country.

    So, in spite of the four points above, why would ISIS try to travel through the US-Mexico border?

    1. The border is a high-value soft target.

    Creating psychological fear, interstate tension and economic damage are all goals of a terrorist attack. With the US-Mexico border having a million legal crossings and a billion dollars of trade per day, committing an attack via the border route, or simply against border infrastructure that slows or shuts down that border would be a psychological and economic blow. ISIS is certainly aware of the debate about the US border and the political tensions that exist on immigration and the economic importance of trade to the US. For those reasons, a high-profile attack that can force the US to close its border may be a tempting target.

    2. Bad guys make mistakes.

    Sure, I know that illegally crossing the border is harder than some politicians’ and media rhetoric makes it sound. I know that many trafficking groups wouldn’t want to help and that the US works with its allies (and even some antagonists) around the region to prevent this exact terrorist trafficking scenario. But does the average ISIS terrorist know that? Or do they believe the hype (as do way too many US citizens) that our border is insecure and that there are criminal groups and governments eager to help them cross illegally around the region? The potential that they could make the attempt due overconfidence and succeed through a combination of luck and skill remains a concern, which is why the US should be vigilant to the threat without overhyping it.