1. Interesting detail from NYT on the TPP negotiations:
    Mexico’s secretary of the economy, Ildefonso Guajardo, is taking a particularly hard line against Japan’s automotive industry, a position that some negotiators said helped dash any hope of completing the trade deal in Maui.

    At issue is the definition of a car or truck from one of the Trans-Pacific Partnership countries. Mexico wants only vehicles with around 65 percent of their components made in the T.P.P. region to qualify for lower tariff barriers under the deal. That would favor Mexican trucks made with American and Japanese parts. Japan wants that “rule of origin” threshold set closer to 50 percent, favoring its parts suppliers in China and Thailand.
    There remain a lot of other issues, including pharmaceuticals and dairy, but this disagreement between Mexico and Japan is one of the key remaining sticking points in the negotiations. For Mexico, the auto sector is a booming industry amid an otherwise sluggish economy, meaning the details are worth fighting.
  2. Five people including photojournalist Ruben Espinosa were found tortured and killed in their apartment in Mexico City. Espinosa was a journalist in Veracruz who fled to the capital after threats of violence.

    While Mexico is dangerous in general for journalists, Veracruz under Governor Javier Duarte has been particularly deadly. Thirteen journalists have been killed in Veracruz since 2010 including four of the seven journalists killed this year in Mexico. According to a June press release from Article 19, Espinosa was the most recent of 37 journalists forced into exile from Veracruz due to threats.

    A large rally took place in Mexico City yesterday calling for a full investigation into the murder. Many in the media are critical that the government is treating this case as a typical robbery, not mentioning the previous threats against Espinosa in their statement on the investigation. Impunity for previous attacks against journalists is what leads to future attacks and forces journalists to self-censor or flee into exile.
  3. During the debate over US sanctions on Venezuelan government officials, are you the sort of person who thought, "Why is the US just sanctioning human rights abusers in Venezuela and not in other countries in Latin America?" I certainly am. Here is what I wrote in May 2014:
    The US and Venezuela aren’t best friends right now, but that doesn't mean we should have one standard removing the visa of an abusive military officer in Venezuela and another for a military officer who committed a similar crime elsewhere. We shouldn’t have one standard for seizing a bank account of a corrupt Venezuelan politician while ignoring other corrupt politicians around the hemisphere. We shouldn’t sanction a software company for selling surveillance gear or an arms manufacturer for selling tear gas to Venezuela while applauding that same sale to an allied country who has a track record of misusing those tools against political opponents and peaceful protesters. And the reverse is true. Nobody should condemn human rights abuses and demand restrictions of US allies then argue that those same condemnations and sanctions aren’t deserved by Venezuelan security forces due to questions over effectiveness or concerns the government may use the sanctions as political ammunition.
    Welcome to S. 284: The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. It takes the US sanctions regime against Russia (which is very similar to the structure of the Venezuela sanctions passed last year), and applies them globally. Any government official or member of a security force who engages in extrajudicial executions or other serious violations of human rights can have their US visas revoked and assets seized inside the US.

    The bill has backing from liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. The biggest debate about the bill is not whether it should be passed but how public the names of those sanctioned should be.

    There are a few caveats here. First, the US executive branch already has many of the sanctioning authorities available in this bill. This would streamline some of the sanctioning authority and perhaps create greater pressure to use it, but it's not radically new. Second, the US president (of either party), could obviously use this authority selectively, choosing to publicly sanction officials of governments that are antagonistic while ignoring the abuses of allies. That's not what should happen and is not how this bill is designed, but critics would argue that it will inevitably occur. Third, sanctions sometimes backfire. Some politicians like to use the US as a foil to distract from their domestic problems. Fourth, requiring sanctions against human rights abusing officials of allied (or even antagonistic) countries could make it tougher to work with those countries on mutual issues.

    All that said, it's a good idea to have a sanctions regime that doesn't just target Venezuela and Russia, but demands that any foreign government official that shoots a protester or tortures a political opponent shouldn't get a US visa or have a US bank account. It's a basic human rights standard the US should want to uphold. I look forward to seeing the president sign this bill when it passes Congress.
  4. Alfredo Corchado:
    The cause of so much violence against journalists, not only the most extreme form, such as murder, kidnapping or beatings, but also threats, spying and harassment, is simple: impunity. Every attack against a journalist that goes unpunished invites the next one. Any politician, public official, police commander or criminal who wants to kill, kidnap, beat or threaten a journalist can do so because most of the people who have done it before got away with it.
    That testimony comes from yesterday's hearing on Threats to Press Freedom in the Americas. Witness statements included Corchado's powerful testimony on the issues in Mexico, a well-documented statement by Nicolás Pérez Lapentti about Ecuador's censorship, particularly against El Universo, and some balanced testimony by Freedom House and CPJ talking about the problems across the entire hemisphere.

    While Corchado was specifically referring to Mexico, that paragraph quoted above eloquently describes the problem in much of the hemisphere. The problem of impunity applies as much to the organized crime hotspots of Mexico, Honduras, Colombia and Venezuela as it does to the politically repressive countries of Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Venezuela (hey, one country was on both lists!).

    Multiple testimonies offered support for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression. Several countries, particularly Ecuador, have attempted to weaken these international institutions in recent years. For those defending journalists and media freedom, those institutions are vitally important to bringing greater international attention to the issues. We need to remain strong supporters of them.
  5. This blog:
    It's long been "conventional wisdom" among the US political pundits that US policy on Cuba would not change because the Cuban-American community is a key constituency in Florida, which in turn is a key state for winning the electoral college. National politicians have been afraid to touch the Cuba issue, for fear that losing a few votes over a minor issue could lead to losing a presidential election.

    Like so many other points of "conventional wisdom" this year, it's time to throw that bit of punditry out the window and prepare for a new electoral dynamic. The American people want a reformed policy towards Cuba, the US political map has changed and the policy reform matches Obama's message that the country is ready for a new direction on foreign policy. This is the year in which changing the US position towards Cuba isn't just smart policy, it's also smart politics.
    I wrote that in February 2008, in the middle of the Obama-Clinton primary battle. At the time, candidate Obama argued for gradual reform of US policy towards Cuba. Hillary Clinton's team called him naive on foreign policy for advocating for those changes while suggesting that he couldn't win Florida or the national election with that policy.

    Over seven years later, Obama's approach has proven correct. Clinton's support of the embargo, both as a candidate in 2008 and secretary of state in the first term of the Obama administration, was wrong. Since leaving her position in the cabinet, Clinton has hinted at considering changing the embargo, but she has never made a clear statement to end it.

    On Friday, candidate Clinton (version 2016) will finally call for an end to the Cuba embargo. It's about time.
  6. Evan Ellis on the Guyana-Venezuela territorial dispute:
    If not strongly condemned by the international community, Venezuela’s aggressive rhetoric and actions will have troublesome implications for the stability of the region. Would the states of the region be equally silent if Colombia began to threaten Nicaraguan fishermen operating near San Andres Island, based on its discontent with the 2013 International Court of Justice (ICJ) decision? Should Chile have a similar right to declare a maritime defense zone in parts of its maritime frontier with Peru, awarded to the latter by the ICJ in 2014, if Chile were to decide that the award was unjust?
    Evan means for these rhetorical questions to highlight the region's double standards and encourage international action on the dispute, preferably through the OAS. However, I think he accidentally explains precisely why countries like Colombia and Chile have not been more vocal in support of Guyana.

    Speaking up against Venezuela's ridiculous claims on Guyana's territory means that Venezuela will bring whatever international leverage it still has against these countries' disputes.  In a year in which presidents have many other difficult issues to manage, it is easier and less costly to remain silent and avoid controversy than speak up. We saw that realist foreign policy philosophy with President Santos praising the Venezuela declaration that claimed Guyana's territory but cleared up its dispute with Colombia. Raising a criticism of Venezuela would have potentially reopened the dispute and could have created negative repercussions for the peace process.

    Would it be better for the region if they took a united stand in solidarity with Guyana's sovereignty and against Venezuela's aggression? Possibly. But at each individual country's level, there is little incentive to speak out. It's a variation of a classic tragedy of the commons problem playing out in the region's diplomacy.
  7. Lots of horrific abuses of human rights and democracy happened in Latin America's recent past. This led to a generation-long struggle to investigate, prosecute and convict the former leaders responsible for those abuses. Success varied by country, but the mere act of investigating past abuses helped promote the ideas that nobody should be above the law and institutions should hold current and former leaders accountable. This has meant the investigations and prosecutions of the current generation's corruption scandals have been quicker and more efficient.

    The above paragraph is a giant (and risky) generalization for a very diverse region. Yet, I think it will hold true over the coming decade. Corruption scandals are being prosecuted more quickly than the abuses of the past, in part because the region built institutions to investigate those past abuses and in part because the culture of the region as a whole has shifted. If the current corruption scandal you care about most hasn't been prosecuted yet, my guess is that it will take less than ten years after a leader leaves power instead of the 20-30 it took to investigate the abuses of South America's dirty wars and Central America's conflicts.

    This leads to a couple of interesting points.

    1) While prosecuting corruption and reducing impunity improves governance in the long term (at least in theory), it creates some serious short term political instability. The current wave of anti-corruption protests and prosecutions threatens the governability of at least a half-dozen Latin American countries, perhaps more. It has weakened leaders and made it much harder to get other necessary agenda items through the political system.

    2) Leaders like Brazil's Lula da Silva who fought hard against the military dictatorships in decades past are surprised and perhaps offended that they are being targeted for corruption investigations at a level that never existed for previous leaders. It isn't a double standard as much as an evolving one. While there is no excuse for corruption, it is at least understandable that some leaders feel angry that a previous generation of torturers and murderers lived out their days in impunity while the current generation may face jail for skimming off the top of a budget.

    3) For some leaders like the current cabal in charge of the Venezuelan government, the realization that they will likely face major corruption prosecution upon leaving power increases their incentives to hold on to power at any cost. Watching the corruption investigations play out in Guatemala, Panama and Brazil, they must know that the institutions they have undermined will no longer protect them when the opposition retakes power. Holding off that judgement day is now a goal.
  8. Even with a few days to go, July 2015 was a very rough month for Latin America's biggest economies. Commodities have tanked, including oil, copper and gold. The Chinese stock market continues to show major weakness for one of LatAm's biggest markets. These economic problems didn't start in July, but they accelerated this month with a 20% drop in oil and copper and a significant currency decline in nearly every country. There may be a few countries that benefit from a stronger US dollar and lower oil prices (Guatemala, Honduras), but too many countries are commodity exporters that are feeling the pressure.

    Six of Latin America's seven biggest economies (Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Venezuela) are being forced to once again revise down growth expectations. While we could certainly talk about the economic disaster that is Venezuela, which is clearly the worst of the group, the current wave of problems also includes all four Pacific Alliance countries.

    Economic problems correlate with political problem. Presidential approval is significantly down in all six, below 30% in every country except Mexico. Protests and concerns over corruption and political stability are on the rise.

    We should all be concerned if the region's economy faces another month like this one in 2015.
  9. Today's NYT contains a lengthy and well researched article about China's presence in Ecuador, tying the issues within that one country to China's global expansion. There is a lot in the article, but here are four key points to take away.

    1. China places strings on its loans, including requirements to use Chinese companies and workers in construction. This means that the infrastructure projects bring about far fewer local benefits in terms of jobs and economic development.
    2. China doesn't care about labor rights or environmental issues. Their hydropower plant will destroy a waterfall; their oil drilling will destroy forest areas.
    3. China has used its loaning strategy to make countries dependent on China. As oil prices have gone down, Ecuador has had to renegotiate the terms of its loans with China, which has further weakened Ecuador's flexibility to make other deals in international markets. The article also suggests China makes credible threats to block shipments of goods to countries that might default on Chinese loans.
    4. China makes big promises of future investment and does not always follow through.
    A lot of these criticisms of China's global policies look like the criticisms academics like Rafael Correa have made of the US and Europe in the past.
  10. This blog, last month:
    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. 
    Reuters today:
    Peruvian prosecutors plan to visit Brazil this month to gather evidence of bribery on a transcontinental highway project, Peru's attorney general said in an interview, adding to regional fallout from the biggest corruption scandal in Brazil's history.
    The company is being investigated across the hemisphere. However, as I wrote last month, there are two sides to every bribery story. While I'm sure many governments in Latin America would be happy to prosecute the Brazilian corporation, in order to do so, they will likely need to admit who was on the receiving end of the bribes. Country by country, that information has the potential to be much more politically explosive than whatever hits the company.