1. A new Datanalisis poll (via Caracas Chronicles) shows Venezuela President Maduro has only 30% approval and 68% disapproval. The chart below shows how Maduro's approval rating has steadily fallen since late last year.

    The situation is worse when asked if the country is on the right or wrong track, with 82% saying Venezuela is on the wrong track and only 18% saying it is on the right track. That number, which has steadily dropped since Maduro took office, gives the sense that there are a lot of dissatisfied Chavistas.

    Certainly, plenty of presidents around Latin America in the past 15 years have survived significant approval plunges. President Humala is around the same level as Maduro at the moment and has been there for months. Argentina President Kirchner has dropped below 30% several times in her term. Former Costa Rica President Chinchilla spent most of her final year well below 30%. Even Brazil President Rousseff's approval rating dropped to 30% in mid-2013 and she's currently the favorite in a tight reelection campaign. Approval numbers don't automatically signal the end of a government.

    However, the difference in Venezuela is that there is no end in site for the Chavismo model. Unlike Peru, Argentina, Costa Rica, Brazil or other cases with low presidential approval, there is not an election in the near-term that can offer the population an opportunity to vote on the change they are demanding. Several recent Venezuela polls indicate that over 50% of Venezuela's population wants Maduro to resign, to revoke his mandate or to call for a new constituent assembly, all of which would be steps that would not be a normal transition of leadership. That's not good news for Venezuela's president.
  2. Today's NYT editorial praising Cuba's efforts on Ebola contains one important specific recommendation:
    As a matter of good sense and compassion, the American military, which now has about 550 troops in West Africa, should commit to giving any sick Cuban access to the treatment center the Pentagon built in Monrovia and to assisting with evacuation.
    Whatever else you think about this editorial, this one sentence recommendation makes a lot of sense. It plays to the strengths of both Cuba's and the US's response to Ebola in West Africa. It's not a grand gesture or policy shift, but rather a small measure that benefits everyone involved. The two countries should cooperate to make this happen.
  3. Datafolha and Ibope, the two pollsters considered most credible, have each released two polls that have been the exact same. 

    The polls on 9 October had Neves 46, Rousseff 44. 
    The polls on 15 October had Neves 45, Rousseff 43.

    Neves has a slight but perhaps statistically irrelevant lead.

    Two other polls are in the mix.

    Vox Populi has the race Rousseff 45, Neves 44.
    Sensus has the race Neves 52, Rousseff 37 (outlier!).

    The bad news for Rousseff is that she took almost none of the undecided vote in the first round, which means that the statistical models for how Rousseff and Neves split the undecideds in round two likely lean in favor of the challenger. 

    The good news for Rousseff is that her party organization is strong and her very negative campaign is hurting Aecio Neves's ratings, even as it bothers everyone watching the election as to just how dirty this is getting. In the past week, the Rousseff campaign team has shifted from criticizing Neves for being a right-wing ideologue to criticizing specific corruption problems he and his party have faced. The polling data I've seen suggests the attacks may be working.

    Yesterday's debate was a mud-slinging festival in which the two candidates traded allegations about which one is more corrupt. In a country where millions protested last year against corruption in politics, this campaign isn't exactly helping to heal the political system.
  4. In 2006, Jorge Castaneda published a Foreign Affairs article claiming there were "two lefts" in Latin America.
    One is modern, open-minded, reformist, and internationalist, and it springs, paradoxically, from the hard-core left of the past. The other, born of the great tradition of Latin American populism, is nationalist, strident, and close-minded.
    I never agreed with Castaneda'a "two lefts" analysis (nor did I agree the region experienced a "pink tide"), but it was the sort of elegant narrative that became conventional wisdom in many circles. Analysts contrasted a moderate left defined by Brazil and Chile with a populist left defined by Venezuela and the rest of ALBA. The assumption was that the moderate left would succeed while the populist left would eventually collapse under its own failures (but we should all panic about it anyway).

    A subsidiary belief to this was that the populist left was created and supported by Hugo Chavez. The rest of those ALBA countries needed Venezuela and its oil money to keep their political systems working.

    Eight years later, it's interesting to see that divide in what was considered the radical left. Venezuela is facing economic and political turmoil, recession and massive inflation, some of the worst crime statistics in the hemisphere, and one recent poll showing 58% of the Venezuelan public thinks President Maduro should resign. Meanwhile, Bolivia President Evo Morales was reelected with a solid 60% support brought about by strong economic growth and an ability to subtly and effectively neutralize his opposition.

    The "two lefts" weren't supposed to be defined by the differences between Venezuela and Bolivia, but here we are.

    Michael Shifter and Murat Dagli hit some important points in this WPR article:
    At least three of the ALBA members—Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua—have proved to be among the most stable Latin American governments, with very popular leaders.  Despite their troubling authoritarian tendencies, marked by an erosion of the rule of law, the governance models forged by Presidents Evo Morales, Rafael Correa and Daniel Ortega, respectively, have gained wide support and are sustained by sound economies. For Washington, the challenge has become how to balance criticisms of democratic backsliding with attempts to engage popular governments presiding over economic and social progress.
    Shifter and Dagli's take on the political situations in each country is just as important as the economics. It's not just economic growth in each of those three countries, but also a more successful manipulation of the political system than what has been mismanaged in Venezuela.

    The alternative hypothesis for these countries is written by Oppenheimer in his column this weekend:
    Financially irresponsible countries with luck: They include Ecuador and Bolivia, which have followed Venezuela’s steps nationalizing companies and taking other anti-business measures, but started doing these things much more recently. They are relatively lucky, because the world is awash with cash looking for short-term high yields, and they can still get some speculative investments to keep their economies going.
    This is how a few analysts try to hold on to the quickly disintegrating Two Lefts theory. Instead of trying to explain why Bolivia and Ecuador are growing faster economically than Venezuela (or for that matter, Mexico and Colombia), Oppenheimer attributes it to luck and the fact their nationalizations were more recent and moves on.

    So lets look at the other side of the two lefts divide. Chile has already seen the left leave and come back in the form of Michelle Bachelet, it's a member of the Pacific Alliance, and its economy is struggling given the current low copper prices. Brazil is facing very weak economic growth, serious protests last year and a potential (though still not likely) removal of the PT from power this year. Uruguay's economy is doing ok, but that election is also likely to be close. Humala, who was lumped in with Evo Morales and the "populist left" in Castaneda's 2006 article, has turned out to be one of the most macro-economic orthodox leaders on the continent and is widely praised by investors.

    The group of countries and politicians defined as a moderate and pragmatic left is struggling both economically and politically to varying degrees.

    Let me leave aside the crazy idea that we shouldn't try to force each country's individual politics and economics into an easily explainable grouping and ask the tougher question. Is there an elegant narrative for Latin America today?

    To some extent there is a narrative and conventional wisdom in Latin American political analysis, with many analysts moving away from "two lefts" to contrasting the Pacific Alliance vs. Mercosur vs. ALBA. Yet, while I think the Pacific Alliance has value as a tangible group taking real integration actions, the narrative that these countries are doing better economically is only barely supported by the data and its long term political stability as an organization is not supported by public opinion polling.

    So what's the correct narrative that explains Latin America as it is, not as we might want it to be? Can we find a post-Cold War explanation for "left" and "right" ideology without stumbling over all the messy details of how these countries actually succeed or fail?

    What narrative gives us a region in which Venezuela is collapsing while Bolivia is succeeding, Brazil is stumbling but Mexico isn't doing much better, where Argentina is an economic disaster whose stock market has more than doubled this year, where the paragons of free trade ideology in Chile and Peru actually depend on a commodity export model while Ortega's Nicaragua is the biggest beneficiary of CAFTA? Can we create any simple and elegant explanation in which all of those data points hold together?
  5. A third term. With about 60% support (the polls were right!), Bolivia President Evo Morales will get a third term in office. Even though his vote percentage yesterday was slightly less than 2009 when he won 64% of the vote, his victory seemed smoother and more complete this year. Morales won eight of nine provinces including Santa Cruz, long considered an opposition stronghold. Unlike 2009, the opposition put up little fight this year and appeared resigned to their loss even before the votes were cast.

    A Congressional majority. Morales’s MAS party also won 24 of the 36 Senators and 80 out of 130 deputies (those are early results and may change), falling just short of their desired 2/3 majority in both chambers of Congress. Still, falling short of 2/3 doesn’t negate that they have solid majorities and can pass bills at will. After nine years in power, Morales has also consolidated control of the courts. This means there are limited institutional checks on Morales’s power. The president owns the perceived success Bolivia has today, which is why he won reelection, and without any institutional opposition he should be given credit or blame for the success or failure the country has in the coming five years.

    Bumps in the road. Morales has been riding high for almost all of 2014, but that doesn’t mean his first or second term were smooth. In 2011, the president's approval rating dropped into the 30’s and his reelection numbers were down at 25%. He’s faced a regular series of protests, previously by right-wing opposition in the East and more recently by unions and environmentalists. Winning 60% of the vote doesn’t mean Morales is going to have a smooth third term, but protests or sudden public approval drops also don’t mean that Morales is finished. He’s shown a proven ability to negotiate his way out of protest situations and bounce back from political problems. I expect Morales to have some rocky moments in his third term, but analysts should be careful never to count him out too early.

    Brazil’s influence. A lot of analysts place Bolivia in the Venezuela/ALBA sphere of influence. The reality is that Morales has done well to reduce those ties in recent years and limit the potential economic damage that could come from a collapsing Venezuelan state. Famously, Morales has also cut US ties, kicking out the DEA and the US ambassador. This means, to the extent Bolivia falls under anyone’s influence, it’s Brazil. Bolivia’s economy, including natural gas exports, is strongly tied to its neighbor. Brazil has also taken an active interest in security and counter-narcotics issues in Bolivia, sending troops to train, encouraging the Morales government to crack down on criminal traffickers, and using drones to patrol the border. That Brazilian influence will likely remain true no matter the outcome of Brazil’s election this month, but it’s hard to know how Morales would work with a non-PT government next door.

    After Evo. This is the third time I’ve written “Five Points on Morales” (see 2005 and 2009) and for the sake of regional democracy I hope that I don’t have to write it for a fourth in 2020. If he completes this term, Morales will spend 15 years in office, which should be long enough for any leader. Over the past nine years, he has not yet taken steps to groom a competitive successor and has arguably kept other politicians within the MAS from growing too strong to challenge his authority. In this third term, Morales needs to figure out how to step away from the presidency and pass along his “revolution” to a successor. Presidents for life tend to be presidents who remain just long enough to lose all the gains they have made.
  6. I last wrote about Bolivia's election in late July, a post noting that President Evo Morales had a huge lead in the polls. There hasn't been a need to write much because nothing has changed since then. Unlike some other recent elections, Bolivia has experienced a boring campaign awaiting an almost inevitable outcome.

    Good articles from Nick Miroff and Ben Dangl published this week explain why Morales is near certain to win. He's maintained a left-wing rhetoric while managing orthodox macro-economic policies. His recent policies have been relatively friendly to the business community and the extractive industries and have led to economic growth and budget surpluses. He's funded social programs and infrastructure spending, keeping high levels of support among the poor in the Altiplano, without breaking the bank. He has also worked to divide and overwhelm his critics on both the left and right with a cynical and Machiavellian style that has worked quite well for him in recent years.

    I estimate there is about an 85% chance that Morales wins in the first round this weekend. If one of the opposition candidates surprises and makes it to a second round, Morales is still a solid favorite in any second round scenario.
  7. Much of the hemisphere is focused on Guerrero, Mexico right now, where 43 students have gone missing and have likely been killed, kidnapped or disappeared by a corrupt local police unit. The Peña Nieto government has sent federal police to take control of the town of Iguala, where the police chief is wanted for murder and has fled. The federal government is investigating the case and looking for the bodies. Numerous political and human rights groups are demanding more results quickly.

    Unfortunately, it often takes a high profile event, in this case the disappearance and likely massacre of dozens of students in Mexico, to highlight police abuse in this hemisphere. Whether it's Honduras or Venezuela or Brazil (and sometimes the United States), many countries have a problem with unjustifiable police homicides, and worse, police actively engaging in violent criminal activity that they should be helping to prevent.

    A professional civilian police force is necessary for citizen security in any country. It's tough to talk about "police reform" in this hemisphere without acknowledging that the police in some cases are part of the problem. When police act as criminal gangs or vigilantes engaging in homicides, kidnappings and extortions, it's not a simple solution to engage in training and reform programs to reduce criminal activity.

    There are plenty of good police in this hemisphere. Most of the police I've encountered have acted as upstanding citizens trying to improve their communities. It's damn frustrating for them to be judged by the worst of their corrupt peers in these high profile criminal cases.

    Yet to suggest it's just a "few bad apples" is to ignore the statistics and patterns of police crime. The understandable tendency of police forces to rally around their peers rather than engage in a real investigation can weaken the reputation of the good cops, which is often why an outside investigation is needed. When the high profile cases highlight the problem, we need to take the time to review all those cases of disappearances and extortions and killings of unarmed minorities that didn't make the front pages of the national newspapers, not simply solve the high profile case and go back to ignoring the problem.

    The Peña Nieto government is acting on the Iguala disappearances and doing so in a relatively timely fashion, not fast enough for the victims and their families, but moving forward and making progress on the investigation under some intense domestic and international media attention. However, the worst thing that could happen is for the government to treat Iguala as some sort of outlier case. The police corruption and police crime problem in Mexico goes beyond the state of Guerrero and the problem in this hemisphere goes beyond Mexico.

    We need good police and we need them to be respected by the populations of their countries. While it's difficult, we as a hemisphere don't get to that goal without tackling the problem of crime and corruption inside police forces. We need investigations of crimes when they occur and we need those investigations to go beyond the events that make the front page of the newspaper.
  8. Change? All three presidential candidates and nearly every analyst have talked about how Brazil’s election is one in which voters want change. The belief is that the desire for change showed by the 2013 protests still matters in politics. Yet, the results run contrary to change. Incumbent President Dilma Rousseff won just under 42% of the national vote, coming in first place. She’ll face Aecio Neves, setting up the fourth PT vs PSDB presidential runoff in a row and the sixth face-off primarily between those two parties if you go back to FHC’s first round wins in the 1990’s. It’s also telling that 29% of voters did not vote or submitted a blank or spoiled ballot, not much of a difference from the 27% who did so in 2010.

    Neves outperforms polls. The final polls last week showed Aecio Neves close to and perhaps surpassing Marina Silva to come in second place. Even given that momentum, Neves’s results were surprisingly strong. Winning over 33% of the vote suggests that Neves won nearly all the remaining undecided voters and some of Silva’s supporters in the final days of the campaign. Neves’s weakness is that nearly all his support came from southern states, with some poor showings up north. He’ll need to hope that Marina Silva’s potential endorsement and perhaps the PSB party machinery can help deliver votes in the second round from areas where he did poorly in the first.

    Negative campaigning works. Rousseff’s campaign team spent the past month pounding Marina Silva with criticism, viewing her as the bigger threat. The fact Silva went from a solid second place (and first place in a few polls) down to a distant third with 21% shows that the president’s negative campaigning worked. I’ve occasionally heard that negative campaigning doesn’t work or that it won’t work in x country. I certainly heard some pundits suggest it in Brazil. If nothing else, these election results prove that negative campaigning is very effective. Through its negative campaigning, Dilma’s team crushed Silva’s presidential chances and in doing so sent voters over to Neves. I expect President Rousseff to run a very negative campaign in the second round, attempting to do to Neves what they did to Silva.

    The other elections. Of the 18 governors up for reelection, four were reelected in the first round (including São Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin) and ten have made it to a run-off. Overall, 13 governor races were decided in the first round and 14 will go to runoff elections. In the Congress, the PT, PMDB and DEM lost seats in the lower house while the PSDB and PSB stayed about the same from their 2010 election results (they gained seats from the current Congress because they had lost seats during the term due to Brazil’s rules allowing members of Congress to switch parties). In all, 28 different parties obtained Congressional seats, the most since Brazil’s return to democracy. The Brazilian Congress, which already had one of the highest effective number of parties in the world, is more fragmented than ever.

    Going to round two. Entering the second round, it’s Dilma 42, Aecio 34. Neves needs an anti-Dilma coalition to stick together and is going to hit the president hard on corruption allegations and the poor economy. He will need Marina Silva’s support to pull it off. Rousseff needs to win just about 40% of Marina Silva’s voters to win this election comfortably. Her campaign team should be concerned that the president won very few undecided voters in the first round. They are going to throw criticism at Aecio Neves to keep Silva supporters from jumping over to him. It’s going to be a negative second round. Rousseff remains the solid favorite because she is the incumbent.
  9. InSightCrime reports on allegations of drug money in Peru's municipal elections taking place on 5 October.
    In August, the national electoral authority (JNE) reported it had received a list of 2,131 candidates with criminal records, and later announced that they were excluding 345 of them from the elections. 
    Around the same time, Interior Minister Daniel Urresti handed a list of 124 candidates with suspected drug ties or drug trafficking sentences to the electoral authority
    They helpfully include an interactive map of the 124 candidates who have been under investigation.

    Most of these candidates are local mayoral and city council candidates for small municipalities, meaning that their influence on national politics is not particularly strong. The concern at the national level is still that there is a significant amount of drug money in the political system that has negative effects on democracy overall.
  10. Panama will host the Summit of the Americas in 2015. It should be a big and important event for hemispheric cooperation. The most important thing we can do is work to set a positive and pro-active agenda for that event.

    From the perspective of United States foreign policy, I want the US president to attend and to engage with the rest of the hemisphere. That means discussions of economic development, poverty reduction, trade, innovation, education, energy, climate change, citizen security, democracy and human rights. I also want President Obama to listen to the agendas of other national leaders and have a conversation about where our priorities meet.

    The Summit provides space for dialogue among the various countries on the sidelines of the event. Even if the entire hemisphere doesn’t agree on a specific issues, those attending can hold bilateral and multilateral meetings to push programs forward and make progress on issues where presidential leadership can make a difference.

    For the US, the Summit is an excellent opportunity to talk with Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and other major hemispheric leaders in a multilateral setting about regional issues rather than bilateral ones. The Panama Summit, like the past two, is also one of the few times that the US president will sit down in a multilateral forum with the leaders of the Caribbean or Central America and hear the concerns of those smaller countries in a multilateral setting where their combined voices carry more weight.

    For all those reasons, the US president should attend the Summit and be an active participant in its events. The Summit of the Americas is a rare opportunity for the US to engage at a high level across the region that shouldn’t be passed up. The outcomes don’t have to be perfect for it to be worth our time.

    Unfortunately, if you’ve read anything about the 2015 Summit, you’ve only read about one issue: Cuba. Will Cuba attend and under what conditions, if any? There are those who favor engagement with Cuba who think this Summit should be an opportunity to fix the US’s broken policy. Those who favor the isolation of Cuba think the US should boycott the event if Raul Castro is in the room. There are even those trying to find a middle path on the issue.

    To anyone who thinks this Summit is or should be about US-Cuba relations, my message to you is that you are wrong.

    The Summit of the Americas is supposed to tackle the biggest and most challenging issues this hemisphere faces. The question of whether the aging leader of a little island dictatorship attends this meeting is ridiculously minimal compared to the other challenges in this region and should not overwhelm and undermine everything else we as a hemisphere do. I care about human rights and democracy in every country, but I refuse to let the debate about human rights in a country with a population smaller than Mexico City derail the important issues that the almost one billion people in this hemisphere must face.

    The US president should not decide to attend or not attend the Summit based on the presence of any single other country. The US president should attend the Summit because the leaders of 33 other countries in the hemisphere will be in the room and this is the best opportunity we have for a regional dialogue. When journalists or pundits or politicians ask about whether the US president will attend, the US government should say President Obama will attend and point at that long list of topics that we need to address as a hemisphere that go beyond our bilateral relations with any single country.

    The Obama administration wants to promote a hemisphere that is secure, middle-class and democratic. That means we need to maintain focus on the big tough challenges including trade, security, poverty reduction and climate change without getting sidetracked by other less-important bilateral disputes. Showing up to the biggest meetings this hemisphere holds is a necessary step to getting any of that agenda accomplished and our attendance shouldn’t even be up for debate.