1. NYT:
    The United Arab Emirates has secretly dispatched hundreds of Colombian mercenaries to Yemen to fight in that country’s raging conflict, adding a volatile new element in a complex proxy war that has drawn in the United States and Iran.
    The presence of private security contractors from Latin American countries in the Middle East is a fascinating story, but one that should concern us as well. As the article notes, there is a specific interest in recruiting from Colombia because those combatants have better training and experience than most of their counterparts, but there is also significant recruitment in El Salvador, Peru and Chile.

    These private soldiers have limited legal rights or obligations. There is no system to really vet them when they enter the company or prosecute them or even report their abuses back to their home countries if they commit a human rights violation while acting as a private soldier. There is limited support for those wounded and no support for PTSD or other psychological issues once they are returned to their home countries. These soldiers are also networking and training in ways that could prove to be security threats over the long term (how many LatAm criminal organizations would value a military veteran with additional experience in Yemen?).

    At a geopolitical level, it also threatens to bring several Latin American countries, particularly Colombia, into the complex proxy battles currently occurring in the Middle East. It turns out that Colombia accidentally has hundreds of deployed troops on the ground in Yemen, more than nearly any other country. At some point, the home country has a responsibility for where its veterans take their training and networks. Even if they don't recognize that responsibility, other countries may want to blame them.

    Let me throw out this hypothetical: A brigade of private Latin American soldiers is deployed by a Middle Eastern government to Syria and engages in a battle against Russian forces deployed there. Who does Russia blame? It's a hypothetical at the moment because UAE's brigade of LatAm mercenaries is in Yemen, not Syria. However, if the Middle East is going the route of private armies staffed by Latin American veterans, this hypothetical is not too far into the future.
  2. Argentina President-elect Macri wants Mercosur to implement its democracy clause and suspend Venezuela. He has also suggested similar actions at UNASUR and the OAS. What happens now?

    The short answer is that Argentina’s move doesn’t force any of these organizations to act immediately, but it does significantly change the voting dynamics internationally and therefore increases the influence of Brazil in Venezuela.

    The Mercosur Ushuaia II treaty never defines how the decision should be made and the assumption is that it would be a unanimous decision. In a group of originally four countries, the belief was that three countries could come to an agreement to decide the fourth had broken with democracy. There didn’t need to be a voting system in place.

    UNASUR is a different story. The Additional Protocol to the Constitutive Treaty of the Union of South American Nations on Commitment to Democracy says that the organization “…shall consider by consensus, the nature and scope of the measures to be applied….” Consensus generally means an attempt to achieve unanimous agreement, but without rules requiring unanimity or any wording about veto authority or dissent looks like, “consensus” can mean anything from majority vote after debate to requiring full unanimity. It’ll be a debate over terms.

    The political reality of both organizations is that Brazil’s position is the now the only one that matters. With Macri’s Argentina firmly on the side of condemning democratic breaches and human rights violations in Venezuela, Brazil’s position is the one that would bring unanimity to Mercosur, with Uruguay likely following Brazil’s lead. Argentina’s ideological shift also makes Brazil the median voter at UNASUR on the issue of Venezuela. Bolivia, Ecuador and Suriname would hold out in favor of Maduro, but they’re too small to really object if Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guayana, Paraguay and Peru all decide to act.

    While the OAS is still a few votes shy of the 2/3 majority needed to condemn Venezuela, it’s more than likely that Brazil’s movement on the issue would come with the 3 or 4 additional votes needed from the Caribbean to make it happen. So Brazil is the vote that matters there as well.

    Brazil avoided acting before in part because speaking out at these international organizations would come with a cost (Venezuela would likely restrict payments to Brazilian companies even further) with no benefit as Argentina blocked any attempted action. After Argentina’s election of a new president, Brazil is now the swing vote at both Latin American organizations and the only large country still supporting Venezuela at the OAS.

    So will Brazil move to kick Venezuela out of Mercosur? Not yet. Instead, Brazil’s new position as the swing voter at Mercosur and UNASUR gives them enormous leverage in Venezuela, much more than they had last week when Maduro knew that Argentina would have his back. Brazil gets to play good cop, encouraging better behavior, while also retaining a credible threat that it is the only country standing between Venezuela and multilateral sanctions. That's a much more powerful position than they held previously.

    And that means Maduro can’t steal or cancel the legislative election or take any other significant anti-democratic action moving forward without facing enormous repercussions. There were serious questions last week whether Mercosur, UNASUR or the OAS could act if Maduro did take a radical action break with democracy. Today, with Argentina’s shift, that’s a different story. A stolen or cancelled election or a Fujimori-style autogolpe would be a red line for Brazil and all three organizations would likely vote to suspend Venezuela and implement other sanctions.

    I realize a lot of this analysis depends on my belief that Brazil is a good and rational actor. Many in the Venezuelan opposition and some in Brazil and the US have a different view, believing Brazil’s government has a left-wing ideology that supports Maduro in all cases. I disagree. Brazil’s foreign policy is cautious in its approach and generally against open disputes with its neighbors, but they will move when the time is right and their shift will have an effect. We may know if that is correct in the coming weeks.
  3. The economy favored the opposition. Sure, that is easy to say with hindsight, but Argentina’s poor economic conditions certainly gave an advantage to any opposition candidate. Commodity prices are down. The economy has hovered near recession territory for several years. Jobs are hard to find. Inflation is above 30%. The black market currency rate is about 40% higher than the official levels. Given those basic economic conditions, it’s not amazing that the opposition won. It’s amazing the governing party ever had a chance.

    Economic challenges ahead. Macri wants to open up dollars from day one, promising a staggered approach to get the currency situation normalized. Even with a staggered approach, Argentina’s foreign reserves likely cannot keep up with demand if currency controls are lifted. In order to remove currency controls, Argentina needs more access to foreign capital, but the biggest political mistake Macri could make in the early months would be a bad deal with Argentina’s debtors and he knows it. Even if you think Macri has the correct economic policy solutions (and that is debatable), even the best options are difficult and come with risk for significant economic bumps and political challenges in the coming year.

    The international impact. I don’t think the Macri victory signals any sort of continent-wide shift of ideologies or policies. People who try to read this election as a big shift are likely overstating the impact. However, I do think Macri’s victory will have a specific impact on Venezuela. Macri has called for Venezuela’s removal from Mercosur due to Venezuela’s holding of political prisoners and their failure to meet the organizations basic economic requirements. Marci will likely turn Argentina against Venezuela at both UNASUR and the OAS. He’ll be much more willing to call out any potential fraud in the coming legislative vote, making Maduro’s options that much more limited. At the very least, Argentina’s new president will stop accepting bags of cash from the Chavistas. That gives Maduro one less regional ally going in to the 6 December legislative elections and places additional long term pressure on the government to improve its human rights situation.

    Cristina’s remaining influence. Macri’s biggest opposition in the coming year is going to be the former president and her inner circle.  President Kirchner is heading for retirement, faces corruption allegations and must now deal with an election loss that is at least a partial blow to her and her late husband’s legacies. Still, most analysts in Argentina believe that CFK will remain relevant and influential within her own party and the legislature, particularly through her son Maximo and former economy minister Axel Kicillof. Kichnerismo is not yet done as a political movement. They control most of the Peronist machine and will be a force for years to come. Kirchner's arguments on debt, currency controls and subsidies will be a populist counterpoint to the difficult economic reforms that Macri will now implement.

    Macri’s stability. In the past century, what is the number of elected non-Peronist presidents to finish their term? Zero. The past two, De la Rua and Alfonsin, both ended in economic disaster that they can at least partially blame on policies they inherited and pressures from Peronist sectors. Macri's political and economic teams should definitely be analyzing those case studies, particularly given that the president faces significant opposition in Congress and will be implementing some painful economic measures in the early years. While I’m hopeful Macri can improve Argentina’s economy, those historic examples are in the back of my mind as I've listened to some very over-optimistic members of the business community discuss all the opportunities that Argentina now presents.
  4. Nearly all the major polls in Argentina give Macri a lead over Scioli in this weekend's runoff election, many by 5-10 points. If we trusted the polls in Argentina, Macri would have a near lock on the election.

    Macri has a few big advantages in this second round. Most important, polls show he appears to be winning a majority of Massa voters and winning a majority of Massa's voters would guarantee him the victory. Additionally, nearly all the undecided voters in the first round broke for Macri, and that is likely to hold true in the second round as well. Scioli failed to make any big moves in the debate, which was likely his one chance to shake up the race.

    However, many of the same polls I'm relying on in the second round missed the mark on Macri's narrow second place showing in the first round and in the Buenos Aires mayoral race earlier in the year. Even worse, in both cases the polls were systemically and collectively wrong (their errors moved in the same direction and did not cancel each other out). The comments from the polling firms this week don't make them sound particularly confident in their methodologies. Could they have overshot their corrections? Or could they be undercounting Macri again?

    My model has a 73% chance of a Macri victory (up from 70% earlier this week after one additional poll). The 27% chance of a Scioli win is almost completely based on my uncertainty in the polls and the fact that if the polls are going to be wrong, they are going to be wrong together. While the numbers certainly suggest Macri is likely to win, I've seen too many problems in Argentina's polling recently to make it a certain prediction.
  5. Miami Herald:
    The sole member of Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council who did not sign the preliminary presidential and legislative results says he refused to do so because he doubts the credibility of the results.
    The OAS election observation mission in Haiti published its two page initial report on 26 October, the day after the election. It announced on 6 November that the results announced by the CEP were "consistent with what the OAS Mission observed" and that the OAS would observe the second round in December. That's it. Two generic and bland press releases since the vote took place.

    What good are election observers when they refuse to address the widespread complaints about the process? How can the OAS simply ignore the fact that one member of the electoral council won't certify the results and eight of the presidential candidates, including the second place finisher who made it to the second round, are contesting the first round results and claiming the government stole votes?

    I have no idea whether the Haiti presidential election was rigged, but given the questions raised by candidates and local observers, it does seem like a good idea to audit the votes and do so quickly with a neutral independent body assisting. It's not enough for the OAS observation mission to claim that the results matched its quick count, therefore everyone should move on. Helping the country navigate this dispute and potentially conduct a vote audit should be a key role for the OAS observer mission. The mission should release detailed information about what it saw on election day to help confirm or refute the various allegations of fraud and manipulation that are out there.

    In the same week that the OAS Secretary General made an incredibly strong and widely publicized argument for election observation in Venezuela, the silence of the OAS mission in Haiti is deafening. Election observation does no good if it is not willing to publicly address the problems of the system. Observation has to mean more than press releases praising how well the observers observed.
  6. OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro wrote a letter to Venezuela CNE Director Tibisay Lucena. If you have any interest in Venezuela's elections or any interest in the future of the Organization of American States in the hemisphere, you should go read the letter. All 18 pages.

    1. In terms of Venezuela, Almagro's letter combines high level principles about democracy and the role of the OAS with specific details of where the Venezuelan government has undermined democratic values and human rights. It lists off criticisms of the jailing of opposition leaders and the banning of candidates. It criticizes specific acts of electoral bias as well as censorship and threats against the media in Venezuela. I expect the Venezuelan government to respond with its usual generic anti-imperialist rhetoric plus some comments about how the OAS acted in 2002, but Almagro's specific criticisms are going to stick.

    2. So who is the letter's intended audience and what is its intended effect? Those are the questions analysts should be asking. Obviously, Tibisay Lucena is the named recipient. Even though she has not always played a neutral role in the past, this letter is a personal appeal to her to be a fair and neutral actor in the event of an opposition win. Yet, this is not a private letter among leaders. Almagro has released this letter publicly with the hopes of influencing others and improving the situation.

    For President Maduro, this letter is a warning shot to Venezuela's leader telling him that the OAS is not going to stand by if the election is stolen. If that occurs, Almagro is signaling that he is personally going to make the push on invoking the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Even if Maduro thinks he can round up the votes to prevent it, that is not a debate the Venezuelan government wants to occur.

    To Venezuela's opposition and the general voting population, this letter is a sign that there are international actors watching and advocating for a fair election on their behalf. There is still significant tension within the opposition over the question of participation as well as a feeling of dread among some who believe the election will be stolen and nothing can be done. This letter is supposed to show Venezuela's citizens of all parties (or no party) that their vote will count or someone will call out the problems.

    For other regional actors including Brazil, Colombia, Chile and Uruguay (Almagro's home country), this letter is intended to help advance a stronger position for fair elections within UNASUR and outline the key criticisms that UNASUR should address as they participate in Venezuela where the OAS cannot.

    To the US, which has been long been critical of the lack of OAS action in Venezuela, this letter is sign of renewed vitality in the OAS and a reason to continue supporting the organization. At the same time, just because Almagro and the US agree on this issue, nobody should think Almagro is going to back the US regularly. This letter is a personal effort by him and a sign he's going to be an independent leader of his own organization.

    3. At a regional level, Almagro wants to lead a more activist OAS. The Venezuelan government has rejected the OAS role as an election observer. Instead of sitting back and saying "oh well, that's their sovereign right" Almagro has inserted himself directly in the debate over the country's declining democracy and human rights situation.

    While the Venezuela letter is the most forceful push to date, it's not the only one. For example, Almagro's seven page reply about the MACCIH to Honduras's Oposicion Indignada (and it's classy of the OAS to publish their critics' letter on the front page of the OAS website as part of the debate), makes a strong case for the OAS taking a more active role in promoting anti-corruption investigations and institution strengthening.

    The debate over Honduras probably deserves its own post, but the important part here is that Almagro is not sitting back on these issues and letting the OAS bureaucratize and debate itself to death. Almagro views himself and the organization as an active participant in the hemisphere who is willing to push forward, even at the cost of potentially making mistakes or (gasp) doing something controversial. That is a welcome change and necessary for the OAS to be relevant in the coming decades.

    4. Election observation is important. The push for fair elections in Venezuela appears to be part of a broader effort by Almagro for more, better, and higher profile election observation. The OAS has been highlighting its election observation efforts for months and has conducted several key observation missions in recent weeks, with more events coming up in Paraguay and Haiti. I don't think this is an accident of the electoral calendar. I think Almagro agrees with the recommendations of others that the OAS is strongly suited for neutral election observation as one of its primary roles in the hemisphere. Election observation is one of the issues that will dominate the OAS in the coming decade and one where it can do significant good.

    While Venezuela believed it could back out of the system by rejecting observers, Almagro's letter is showing public consequences for doing so. This letter on Venezuela is going to be far more read than the observer missions' reports on the recent Colombia or Guatemala elections. This hemisphere is supposed to be democratic, election observers are a key part to helping protect democratic rights, and the OAS can play an important role in improving elections across the hemisphere in its observations, reports, recommendations and technical assistance.
  7. After last week's ruling in Mexico that legalized marijuana for four people, a new poll shows 60% of Mexicans disagree with the ruling and 66% are against legalization. Those numbers are similar to polls in most other Latin American countries.

    In recent years there has been significant discussion of Latin America's push to reform global drug policy. We've gone from a continent in which many leaders opposed legalization to one in which there is some support among presidents, though perhaps not from the presidents we expected. However, that push for drug policy reform comes from an elite level, not the public.

    The US public is more progressive than the Latin American public on this issue. The current Obama administration has taken gradually more lenient stands on drug policy experimentation both in Latin America and in US states. There is a growing call for prison reform among liberals and conservatives in the US. There remain a few old school drug warriors out there, but they are certainly in the minority now in the US.

    That's not true in Latin America. To the extent it is safe to ever generalize about the entire region, most public opinion polls in Latin America show the general public is opposed to legalization. The public wants harsher crackdowns on drug trafficking, sale and use, often supporting mano dura laws. The policy reform that has occurred in the region and been praised by the think tank community in DC has been imposed from the top, not delivered via voters' demands.

    It is important to not delude ourselves into believing that Latin America's public widely supports major progressive reforms just because a few ex-presidents write an awesome policy paper about it. In the coming decade, either Latin America's public changes its views on drug policy and criminal justice or the politicians who support reform are going to find themselves punished at the ballot box. As someone who is in favor of significant drug policy reform, this is an important public opinion trend to monitor.
  8. Miami Herald:
    Government-backed candidate Jovenel Moise and opposition candidate Jude Célestin emerged as the two top vote getters in the Oct 25 presidential balloting to succeed President Michel Martelly, according to preliminary results released Thursday by Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council (CEP). Moise finished with 32.8 percent of the votes to Célestin’s 25.2 percent.

    The high-stakes race, which included balloting for parliament and mayors, attracted a cacophony of 54 presidential candidates, including several proteges of twice-exiled, twice-elected former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Two of them, former Sen. Moise Jean-Charles and Dr. Maryse Narcisse, who was Aristide’s chosen pick, finished third and fourth, respectively with 14.2 percent and 7.05 percent.
    Moise was hand chosen by President Martelly while Celestin is the candidate for former President Preval. It sets up a significant political showdown, even if the two candidates aren't particularly well known and other political forces including Aristide's Lavalas still have influence.

    Complicating matters are the significant allegations of corruption from local election observers and opposition political parties. Most of the allegations revolve around the idea that the government-backed Moise campaign had people vote multiple times or otherwise rigged the vote counting process. Campaigns are currently appealing for a review of the ballots to detect the fraud, though it is unlikely that the two candidates set to face off in the second round will change.
  9. I haven't gotten around to writing a regular analysis of Argentina after the first round election, but one detail came up in a call yesterday that I wanted to write about here.

    Is there any doubt that skipping the debate hurt Scioli? The empty podium on stage looked bad. The media and moderators dug in by giving the other candidates extra time that they credited to the frontrunner's absence. And in the single moment of the debate that anyone seems to remember, Sergio Massa took an extra 30 seconds given due to Scioli's absence and stood there in silence to emphasize the fact that the leading candidate wasn't present to answer questions.

    At the time I was watching the debate, I thought Massa's move was more hokey than powerful, but in conversations afterward, it turns out to have been very memorable among the Argentines watching. It sealed in the minds of undecided voters exactly why they were undecided about Scioli. Voters didn't know exactly where Scioli stood on issues, whether he was closer to the president or more centrist, and his not showing up to explain his views reinforced that they weren't ready to vote for him.

    On election day, polls suggest Scioli won nearly no undecided voters. He won his base and that was all. It's impossible to prove, but I'm convinced that the failure to go to the debate is one of the two critical tactical campaign errors that the Kirchner/Scioli team made that caused him to miss the 40% mark in the first round (the other being Anibal Fernandez's candidacy for governor in the Buenos Aires province).

    As a comparison, in April 2006, Lopez Obrador felt so confidently in the lead in Mexico's election that he skipped a debate. Shortly after that, his poll numbers turned and he ended up losing to Calderon by a close margin.

    I understand why frontrunning candidates don't want to debate. It appears to be more risk than reward. But I think campaign managers underestimate the damage done by skipping debates.

    Scioli will be attending the next debate in Argentina and will argue against Macri one on one. He's not going to make the same mistake again.
  10. Francisco Toro writes about the December 1957 plebiscite in Venezuela that led to the downfall of the government of Marcos Perez Jimenez less than two months later. This is the key paragraph:
    The government did indeed go on to “win” the plebiscite of December 15, 1957, and by a wide margin. Less than six weeks later, the dictator Pérez Jiménez had fled the country, his regime a pile of rubble around him. December 1957 is an object lesson in why elections are always a crisis point for authoritarian regimes – and doubly so for unpopular ones – no matter how monolithic their power may appear.
    This is one of several reasons that I almost always believe political oppositions should participate in elections, even if the system is not completely fair. As I wrote in 2010:
    Two key recent elections in Latin America show boycotts failing: Venezuela's legislative election in 2005 and Honduras's election in 2009. In both examples, the boycott served to strengthen those who participated and give those who boycotted very limited participation in the government.

    The difficult decision of Chile's opposition to participate in the 1988 plebiscite is the ultimate example of participation being a better choice than boycotting. Some might include Nicaragua 1990 as another example. Certainly, the Venezuelan opposition's decision to participate in the 2007 constitutional referendum, while some argued for a boycott, turned out to be a short term success.
    More recently, I opposed calls in Guatemala to postpone the election due to all the recent corruption scandals.

    Elections, even if they are unfair or rigged, place pressure on entrenched powers. Boycotting or postponing elections almost always does more to prop up the incumbent power than it does to place pressure on them. Even if elections do not result in change, participation by political oppositions is almost always the better path and the one that is more likely, from a probability standpoint, to lead to change either in the short term or the long term.

    Amazingly, there are still some in Venezuela's opposition who question participation in this year's legislative elections given the system's biases against them. For those who didn't learn the lessons of 2005 or 2007, the 1957 analogy is unlikely to change their minds. Yet it is one more datapoint that suggests that electoral participation, even under unfair conditions, is the smarter path.