1. Here are all the recent Ecuador presidential election polls via Wikipedia:


    There are three takeaways:
    1) Vice President Lenin Moreno leads the first round polling.
    2) There are a huge number of undecided voters or voters refusing to respond to pollsters.
    3) If the undecided voters break as expected, Moreno will win in the first round on Sunday.

    Most of the media coverage of this election seems almost certain that there will be a second round. I disagree. If the polling above is close to correct, I think there is a significant chance this election will be over in the first round once the undecided voters are factored in.

    Now, I can't be certain. In fact, there are two specific ways I can be wrong:
    1) The undecideds or late-deciding voters could break against the government.
    2) The polls could be wrong. Polling is tough in Ecuador and polling any multi-candidate election in which over a quarter of voters are undecided creates huge margins of error.

    However, if the polls are correct and the undecided voters break in a typical pattern, then Moreno is likely to win on Sunday.
  2. Nearly all of the media coverage of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's US tour is focused on his anti-Trump statements. That's somewhat understandable. Nearly every English-language reporter wants to cover the story of how the 2018 Mexican election is a reaction to the 2016 US election.

    At the same time, there is much more going on here.

    First- and second-generation Mexicans in the US have generally been anti-AMLO (they're also anti-PRI, which will be important). In a direct sense, this matters little because Mexicans in the US vote in low numbers in the Mexican election. Though the number of expat Mexican voters will grow in 2018, the chances that expat voters directly tip the election are close to zero.

    However, polls and focus groups suggest Mexicans in the US have influence on their relatives voting back in Mexico. Whether this influence is increasing or decreasing is debatable (increasing because of increasing connectivity; decreasing because of decreased recent migration), but the fact this influence exists is nearly certain.

    AMLO's pollsters and consultants have told him that the anti-AMLO sentiment from US relatives has had a large influence on swing voters in Mexico in previous elections. Given the narrow margins of the 2006 and 2012 presidential elections in Mexico, this US-based anti-AMLO sentiment can be one of the deciding factors in 2018.

    So AMLO needs to reduce the anti-AMLO opinion in the US. While he may not turn many Mexicans in the US into AMLO supporters, he hopes he can at least negate some of the negative feelings. While the anti-Trump message gives AMLO, and every candidate in Mexico, a unifying theme (Mexicans in the US really dislike Trump), this US tour for the Morena candidate would be happening no matter who had won the US election.
  3. Buried in the Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez op-ed about China's role in Venezuela is this absolutely critical point:
    More than just debt is at stake. China risks finding itself denied market access or locked out of lucrative infrastructure and development projects under an aggrieved opposition government. Something similar befell China earlier this decade when, late to halt engagement with Muammar el-Qaddafi before eventually bowing to international pressure, it found itself investor non grata in post-revolutionary Libya. Indeed, a rash of December lootings, seemingly targeting Chinese business owners across the Venezuelan interior, was eerily reminiscent of the last days of the Qaddafi era, when 35,000 Chinese citizens had to be evacuated from Libya and billions in Chinese investment were lost. In continuing to support the Chavista regime indefinitely, China is drawing precisely the wrong lessons from Libya.
    Narratives and analogies are crucial to understanding how countries approach international relations. I'm not convinced, but I find it plausible that China views its potential losses in Venezuela as analogous to its losses in post-Gaddafi Libya.

    But international relations is also about relative power. China lost in Libya, but pretty much every country took some hit in Libya. China wasn't a central player, even if it may have viewed itself that way. The tentative initial US victory laps have been overshadowed by the post-Gaddafi chaos and the Benghazi fallout. Not many analysts globally view the fall of Gaddafi specifically as a Chinese loss relative to a US or European win.

    A shift against China or default on Chinese debt in Venezuela, on the other hand, would be a giant global reputation hit to China (and viewed as a relative victory for the US, even if we didn't gloat). It would reverberate in Latin America, Africa, and even, to some limited extent, among China's neighbors. As one Venezuela analyst recently told me, China is concerned about Venezuela's next moves because it fears being seen as easy to default on globally. The country would then have to back up its loans in other countries with harsher actions (sanctions? gunboat diplomacy?) or fear that a wave of countries would stop paying them with no negative repercussions. China famously hands out aid and loans with "no strings attached," but outside of the completely chaotic situation in Libya, that "no strings" policy has never been fully tested by a country or government that decides to burn China later on.

    So China sees its involvement in Libya as an analogy to Venezuela, but it almost certainly knows the fallout from Venezuela's eventual shift will be far worse. They also have very few ways to back out gracefully, which complicates their incentives.
  4. The US Department of Treasury sanctioned Venezuela Vice President Tareck El-Aissami and his testaferro Samark Lopez. Now on the OFAC sanctions list, no US individual can do business with either man or businesses linked to them.

    The sitting vice president of a country has just been named as a major organized crime boss. It’s hard to state just how rare and almost unprecedented this is. It complicates diplomacy and formalizes the analysis that Venezuela is a country that has undergone “state capture” by criminal organizations.

    Yet, in spite of how rare this is, it’s also a long time coming. The US Department of Treasury, law enforcement and intelligence agencies (as well as journalists and private sector researchers) have spent years researching Tareck, Samark and their network of dirty businesses. Tareck is a man who has made literally billions of dollars off corruption and drug trafficking and laundered a decent amount of those billions into bank accounts, businesses and properties in the US, Central America and the Caribbean.

    The actual story here is that OFAC has likely had this designation ready to go for months if not years. They didn’t develop this research just in the past three weeks.

    There will be some who point at Donald Trump for changing Venezuela policy. That’s almost certainly not the case. In the past 48 hours, Trump lost his National Security advisor to a scandal about ties with Russia and his team mishandled communications after a missile launch by North Korea while the president on a weekend golfing vacation. It seems unlikely the president and his team are sitting around discussing Venezuela policy right now.

    An important factor in this may be Rex Tillerson, the new Secretary of State. The White House is preoccupied with other issues and the new secretary has a long-standing grudge against the Venezuelan government for having expropriated Exxon’s oilfields. I have doubts about Tillerson moving this quickly to change policy, but it makes for a great narrative. At the very least, Tillerson doesn’t seem like the sort to block this sort of policy.

    Another important factor may have been the recent bipartisan Congressional letter. With Congress itching for more sanctions and an investigation against Tareck, the people in the bureaucracy who were sitting on this information certainly felt empowered to push forward. They knew Congress had their backs.

    When watching this debate play out over the coming days, please note that very few outside the Venezuelan government will dispute that Tareck is corrupt. They may take issue with the effectiveness of these sanctions, express concerns that the sanctions will harm other diplomatic initiatives in Venezuela and the region, or nitpick about the details of the evidence cited (all legitimate concerns), but nobody seriously doubts that Tareck is an awful human being who has become personally wealthy and has now taken significant political power all while the Venezuelan population has suffered.

  5. Panama authorities detained Juergen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca for their potential role in the Odebrecht scandal. Additionally, there are allegations that President Varela's campaign took money from the company, meaning that the scandal may touch the president there.

    Venezuela's intelligence service detained two Brazilian journalists who were trying to report on the Odebrecht scandal and bribes in that country. They were held for ten hours and then deported from the country. Members of Transparency International were also detained by the Venezuelan government.

    In contrast, Mexican authorities detained nobody. The scandal that is hitting numerous other Latin American countries remains a source of tension in Mexico, but the Mexican government is hoping that official silence can make it go away.
  6. A bipartisan group of 34 members of Congress signed a letter urging the new administration to take actions against corrupt Venezuelan officials. They specifically call for targeted sanctions against corrupt officials, particularly those identified as profiting from corruption in the food sector. They also want more support for pro-democracy NGOs and an investigation into Venezuela's new VP Tareck el-Aissami.

    There is nothing particularly new about this. There are already targeted sanctions against corrupt officials. There are funds for NGOs. There is a case file a mile thick against el-Aissami, who has been on the US radar for almost two decades now for a whole variety of bad actions. Instead of something new, Congress simply wants more and wants it to be more public.

    Should corrupt foreign officials or those who abuse human rights lose their US bank accounts and visas? Absolutely.

    Should US intelligence and law enforcement agencies investigate foreign leaders with ties to organized crime and terrorist organizations? Hell yes.

    Should we publicize every action in order to embarrass and shame the Maduro government into better behavior or influence regional public opinion? That's where this becomes more complicated and nuanced.

    The Obama administration sanctioned Venezuelan officials with a whisper, trying hard to underplay the action as very targeted and working to balance the sticks of sanctions with carrots of ongoing engagement when possible. While I appreciated the administration's attempted approach to a difficult problem, I was unfortunately in the clear minority. It angered nearly everyone else. Those who opposed sanctions on Venezuela saw the policy as heavy-handed and/or counter-productive. Most of those who supported sanctions thought they didn't go far enough both rhetorically and in reality.

    Many members of Congress would rather have sanctions against Venezuela that are loud and noisy, proclaiming the vileness of the Maduro regime with each and every statement. Quiet, targeted and balanced sanctions, they would argue, have not instilled enough fear in others who would also engage in corruption or harm human rights. They haven't moved the region to act.

    In the new US administration, these members of Congress may get what they want. Trump doesn't do subtle and nuanced. If and when he turns his attention to Venezuela, the bull in the china shop approach is almost certainly how it will play out.
  7. Prosecutors in Peru have accused former President Toledo of accepting $20 million in bribes from Odebrecht.

    The Attorney General's office in the Dominican Republic is now under pressure to act after rising public anger over an unpublicized deal between the government and Odebrecht to cover up the $92 million in bribes there.

    Colombian investigators now believe Odebrecht funneled one million dollars to the reelection campaign of President Santos.

    It's also important to note where there has not been action. The Venezuelan government has used the scandal to attack the opposition, but done nothing about corrupt money received by government officials. And the Mexican government can't even bother to comment about the surprising coincidence that Marcelo Odebrecht had public meetings with President Peña Nieto and top PRI officials in the same month that US prosecutors say that a bribe was given to obtain a contract in that country.
  8. Matt Yglesias writes about the successes that the US opposition has had so far. While the article stresses several times that the president and Congress will have wins in the months ahead, the handful of wins racked up by the opposition in just the past two weeks has been extraordinary in a country where the president usually receives a significant honeymoon and has a majority in both houses of Congress.

    Javier Corrales, shaped by his experience with Venezuela, writes five advantages that the opposition in the US has compared to other countries that face populist-authoritarian types. I agree with each and I'll add a sixth: the opposition is also the majority. Unlike many other populist leaders elected with wide margins, the new president in the US lost the popular vote by several million ballots. From day one, the president has been below 50% approval in nearly every opinion poll.

    There are certainly lessons and comparisons to be made between the new US situation and other populist or autocratic experiences elsewhere in the world including Latin America, but the contrasts are important too. Early successes and early organized opposition are making a large difference.
  9. Brazil President Temer in interview with FT:
    “I would prefer that instead of being applauded now [for unsustainable populist spending] to be applauded later on, that is my objective,” 
    This is a theme Temer has raised numerous times in recent months. He is a lame duck with no plans for running for reelection, so he can make unpopular decisions about spending and taxes that a conventional politician running for officer could not make. It has been a message that financial analysts and some political analysts have applauded and praised.

    However, I see a much darker vision than the markets here. Temer was elected as Dilma Rousseff's vice president. While economists and the market may not like it, Rousseff won the 2010 and 2014 elections on a platform of continuing the PT's spending policies and social safety net for the poor and lower middle class. Rousseff's impeachment and Temer's controversial rise to power mean he is now able to implement policies that go against the Rousseff agenda. In embracing his lame duck status and not searching for reelection, he is essentially embracing a brief period of political instability to enact economic and fiscal policies that Brazilians would vote against if given the chance.

    Temer's is a very anti-democratic message hidden within the framework of anti-populism and economic reform. It's a message that says sometimes an unelected and unelectable person needs to take charge and fix things that the voters simply can't understand and wouldn't support. Of course, it doesn't help that his message is combined with a string of corruption scandals in which the president's allies appear to personally profit.

    While we're all understandably hyped up about the dangers of populism these days, we should be cautious against praising the unelected anti-populism that some would suggest as its antidote.
  10. David Frum's excellent article on autocracy isn't directed at Latin America, but at least one paragraph does deserve a response:
    A president who plausibly owes his office at least in part to a clandestine intervention by a hostile foreign intelligence service? Who uses the bully pulpit to target individual critics? Who creates blind trusts that are not blind, invites his children to commingle private and public business, and somehow gets the unhappy members of his own political party either to endorse his choices or shrug them off? If this were happening in Honduras, we’d know what to call it.
    Frum probably doesn't follow Central America closely, but do we really know what to call it in Honduras?

    President Juan Orlando Hernandez won a slim plurality of the vote and started governing day one as if he had a massive majority of support. He uses the bully pulpit to target critics, and more troublingly, critics who belong to human rights and environmental groups have been threatened, assaulted and killed in large numbers. The president has complete control over the National Party. He has manipulated the legislature and the courts to overrule the constitution and run for a new term in office. The corruption scandals involving his family, friends and business allies are numerous and barely investigated due to his control over significant portions of the country's three branches. I have spoken with numerous journalists in recent years who complain that physical threats or limitations by media owners prevent them from publishing the stories they would like to criticizing the government.

    And while Hernandez doesn't owe his office to a "a clandestine intervention by a hostile foreign intelligence service" (in spite of some of the conspiracies about the 2009 coup), the US has provided full support for the Hernandez government and the significant assistance to his security apparatus. The US has been muted in its criticisms of Hernandez that it would certainly air if the government was more antagonistic and less cooperative on drug and military policy. To Hernandez's domestic opponents, it certainly looks as if a foreign power is tipping the scales in the favor of the president.

    Do we know what to call it? Do we call it what it is?

    Because along with what I wrote above, Hernandez was elected and currently has the approval of a majority of the population. While I can criticize how he's taken control and manipulated the institutions of government, nearly all of what he has done politically has followed the letter of the law using his party's legitimate and democratic control of the legislature. In defense of the US, we should be willing and trying to engage all governments in the hemisphere including the government in Honduras. While I think the US has not been vocal enough in criticizing the president's abuses of power, being needlessly antagonistic and critical of Hernandez would not be particularly productive for US interests. So the US, the OAS and governments around the world continue to call Honduras a democracy. Even I consider the country a "flawed democracy" in which a skilled and powerful group of political and economic elites is manipulating and corrupting the system, but not fully breaking it.

    I'm sure Frum chose to throw out the name "Honduras" because in his mind it is the original "banana republic." However, the country is not that simple. Like Hungary and Venezuela (both cited in the article), Honduras is yet another example of exactly the type of confusing modern democratic manipulation by corrupt wannabe autocrats that Frum attempts to describe. Honduras's situation is complicated and complex and may even hold some lessons for what to watch in the US and Europe from similar types of autocrat-lite leaders. From a policy perspective, to use Honduras as a simplistic counter-example is a dangerous minimization of a difficult policy challenge that has direct implications for the US including thousands of migrants and refugees from the country's violence and persecution who reach our borders.

    Other than that, I loved the article. You should go read it.
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