Friday, August 26, 2016

El Salvador's New Attorney General crusading against powerful, corrupt pols and gangs

Guatemala has the CICIG and Honduras now has MACCIH, but El Salvador has no international commission to assist its institutions in the fight against corruption and high-profile criminal cases.  Despite overwhelming popular opinion in favor of a such an entity (nearly 97 percent, according to one recent UCA poll), the Salvadoran government has steadfastly refused to consider such a body.  In fact, the FMLN secretary general, Medardo Gonzalez, told a crowd of supporters on May 1 that anyone who asks for such an entity should be considered "golpistas" who are only interested in destabilizing the government, according to a report in El Faro

The government’s proposition is that El Salvador has a strong enough judicial system to take care of its own problems, and it is beginning to look like they might be right. In the past few weeks, the new Attorney General, Douglas Melendez – elected by the Assembly as a compromise candidate earlier this year, and probably not expected to ruffle many feathers – has begun to prosecute an unprecedented number of high-profile cases, including:  
  • Operación Jaque – the arrest of dozens of individuals involved in the financial network of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS) gang (See post for Aug. 12)
  • The Court of Accounts, El Salvador’s primary auditing body that has long been held by individuals close to the conservative PCN party, was investigated by the Attorney General, bringing to light 48 case files that were never acted upon and that would have resulted in $2.2 million in fines that could have benefited the state’s coffers, according to El Faro. 
But the news does not stop there.

On Monday night, Melendez’s immediate predecessor  as Attorney General – Luis Martinez – presented himself to the Attorney General’s office, only to be taken into police custody and charged with procedural fraud and "omission" in various cases related to Enrique Rais, a wealthy businessman who has deep connections to one of the strongmen of the ruling FMLN party, Jose Luis Merino (who is also the highest ranking FMLN representative in the Venezuelan-funded Alba Petroleos.)   Rais, his nephew, his lawyer and a former prosecutor from the Attorney General’s office were also taken into custody, while another 10 persons were the subject of arrest warrants.

Stories in  El Faro and Revista Factum provide extensive details and background, and both have long covered these cases.  For example, both have documented numerous trips whereby Martinez traveled abroad on Rais’ personal planes, which have been under investigation in the US by the DEA for involvement in drug trafficking.   In July, the usually quiet Government Ethics Tribunal fined Martinez $9000, noting that Martinez had buried cases brought against Rais, but prosecuted others wherein he was the victim, and encouraged the Fiscalia to investigate.  The crime of “failure to investigate” carries a potential jail term of five years.  Hector Silva Avalos, from Factum,  is currently being sued by Rais for defamation for reporting on Rais’ links to drug trafficking.

An even bigger case is in the making, however, as the Attorney General began to execute search warrants at numerous properties linked to former President Mauricio Funes, as well as his close colleagues Miguel Menendez (known as “Mecafe”) and Fune’s former Agriculture Minister, Pablo Ochoa.  Funes was already the subject of a civil suit for “illicit enrichment”, but these moves indicate the AG is building a criminal case as well. El Farohas all the details. 

Attorney General Melendez justified these moves based on indications that Funes was preparing to apply for political asylum in Nicaragua.  (Tweeting from Nicaragua, Funes says that is not the case, but has given contradictory information about his reason for being there – tourism or business? – according to a report in Confidencial, which also noted that a Guatemalan congressman under investigation for corruption in his country is also currently in Nicaragua.)  Menendez and Ochoa were originally part of the “friends of Mauricio” who supported his candidacy in 2009, and Menendez in particular benefited from numerous, uncompetitive contracts for private security services with the Funes administration, and was named head of the government-run International Convention Center (CIFCO).

Taken together, these cases alone demonstrate a more functional prosecutorial power than El Salvador has seen for many years.  Of course, the real test will depend on whether those prosecutions will ultimately be successful. And we can expect pushback from very powerful political and economic elites should these kind of cases continue to move forward. 

Additionally, the Attorney General would do well to be more aggressive in prosecuting cases of police abuses (including extrajudicial executions) as well as support transitional justice cases moving forward (such as the Mozote massacre), given the recent overturning of the amnesty law.  

In the meantime, it certainly raises the bar of expectations for future prosecutions.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

When will Honduras have a Supreme Court? (And why it matters)

Ever since the 2009 coup in Honduras, the Supreme Court has played a starring role in some of the most important political controversies in that country, and this year is no exception. According to the Honduran Constitution, by January 25th of this year, the Honduran Congress should have selected 15 members of the Honduran Supreme Court, to serve together for a seven-year term (2016-2023).  These 15 should be chosen from a slate of 45 candidates, presented by a nominating board with a diverse make-up of political actors.  However, up until now, and following what observers have referred to as a flawed process, the Honduran Congress has been able to agree only upon eight justices. The fourth session to attempt to complete the roster will be held today, and El Heraldo is reporting that is some likelihood they will come to an agreement on the remaining seven justices.

The reason for the delay has everything to do with electoral politics, and how much has changed since the 2009 coup, but particularly in the last two years since the congressional make-up evolved from an essentially two-party system (with power divided between Liberals and Nationals) into a multi-party system (with two major opposition parties, LIBRE – headed by former President Manuel Zelaya – and the Anti-Corruption Party, or PAC, headed by Salvador Nasralla).  In the 2013 elections, the Liberals and Nationals fell three votes shy of a 2/3 majority – the amount required to elect the Supreme Court -- for the first time since the early 1980s.  So when it came time for Congress to a vote on the 15 justices agreed upon between the Nationals and Liberals, they could not muster votes for the entire package.

Until now, the opposition parties have been firm in resisting the imposition of the remaining candidates, basically protesting two major issues: (1) the fact that all of the candidates are only from the two traditional parties and (2) that many are incompetent, at best, or corrupt, at worst.  LIBRE has refused to negotiate at all, whereas the PAC has agreed to sign off on six candidates they think are relatively good, and conceding one other that was nominated by the government, according to a report last week in La Tribuna.  The PAC also conditioned its support on two longstanding electoral reform demands:  to include the four major parties in an Executive Electoral Council that would supervise the overhaul of the electoral system, and that a second round in the presidential race be required.

But just how reasonable are those demands? On the first point, it’s worth noting that the current Supreme Electoral Tribunal is run by authorities from the Liberals and Nationals, despite the fact that LIBRE is now the second largest party, but those authorities were hastily and prematurely elected before the current, more diverse Congress assumed power.  And on the second point, in fact it is no different than what all of the political parties agreed to before the last elections, and that included the assent of then-president of the Congress, Juan Orlando Hernandez (who took office on the first round with 37% of the vote). (See further details in the most recent Congressional Research Service report.)

Nevertheless, the Liberals and Nationals only need three votes, and El Heraldo is reporting this morning that it seems they will have two votes each from the PAC and LIBRE parties, giving them a safe margin of victory by one vote.  If this turns out to be the case, you might be asking yourself, just what kind of shenanigans took place behind the scenes to get these two legislators to vote for the National/Liberal package of justices?  

Well, the answer may well be found in recent allegations -- surfaced by Radio Globo reporter David Romero Ellner (and cited yesterday by the invaluable Honduras Culture and Politics blog) – that the National Party has been funneling money to a trade association, which in turn has paid off legislators to support various National Party projects, including for their Supreme Court candidates.  While this is excellent fodder for the yet-to-be-installed MACCIH (international anti-corruption commission), it remains to be seen if these charges will get any traction from the Attorney General’s office.

So why does all of this matter?  One can think of many reasons not to let the opposition into the hallowed chambers of the Supreme Court, but none more important than staving off any attempt to reverse the prior, illegal ruling by the current constitutional court made last year in favor of presidential re-election. (And that ruling could only come about because Congress had, in 2012, illegally dismissed four of the five justices on the constitutional court – the lone justice left untouched was later rewarded with the post of Attorney General, Oscar Chinchilla, who continues to this day.)   Prior to this vote, which it appears the opposition parties might lose, a year ago they had been successful in defeating the President’s attempt to raise the status of the new military police in the Constitution.  But there will be only so much they can do if the Supreme Court elected for the next seven years remains beholden to the two traditional parties. 

Friday, September 03, 2010

Mis-remembering USAID

In conversation with colleagues recently, various theories emerged as to what has happened to USAID over the years.  Too much of a contracting agency?  Too controlled by State?  Why has it lost so many professionals?

So I was left pondering how to explain USAID's "thinness", and started to refresh my memory about a few things that I'd once known.

 As it turns out, USAID changed considerably as a result of Al Gore. Yes. The whole "reinventing government" concept of the Clinton era led to a downsizing of staff, a perverse corollary of which was a thinning of evaluation and policy guidance. What I didn't find, but suspect, is that many of the USAID professionals who entered service in the 1970s or 80s left over time, phasing out their service by the 1990s or 2000s -- some quite naturally, due to generous pension plans (whereby USAID folks retire after 20 years, and start a second career -- I know someone in the foreign service younger than me who's planning on doing that in a couple of years, although now everyone only has 401ks, not pensions, so there are not the same incentives), some because of differences over changing policies, and some because of "reinventing government" downsizing.

 On the latter point, precisely when you might have gotten a whole new cadre of idealistic professionals under a Democratic administration, the opposite happened. By the time George W. Bush took office, his USAID Administrator, Andrew Natsios, noted that USAID had let its agricultural expertise and leadership melt away, devoting one billion dollars less to agriculture in 2002 than in 1985 (in 1985 dollars). USAID’s analytical capability in economics had suffered a similar fate, as USAID’s response to cuts in personnel funding had been to sacrifice technical expertise to preserve the jobs of managers.

And this the Clinton adminstration was quite proud of! Take this excerpt from a speech by Brian Atwood, Clinton's USAID administrator, in 1995:
No agency in government has worked more aggressively to embody the spirit of reinventing government than USAID. USAID is far leaner and more focussed than it was just 18 months ago. Eliminating USAID would send a devastating message to all federal employees -- reform is not important; doing your job well is not important; moving boxes around on an organizational chart is.

To begin our reform process, we offered the entire agency as a laboratory for Vice-President Gore's "Reinventing Government" effort. As a result, USAID has put sweeping changes in place. During the last year USAID has:   

  •  Announced the close-out of 27 overseas missions over the next three years and established a timetable for how long the agency should be involved in countries in which it currently operates;
  • Eliminated 90 organizational units in Washington; cut back 70 senior positions, and reduced total staff by over 1,000.
  • Developed a new electronic acquisition and procurement planning system that replaces 65 different systems and will eliminate tons of paperwork and expedite contracting.
  • Established interrelated goals around which financial and human resources are focused: encouraging broad-based economic growth; protecting the environment; building democracy; stabilizing world population growth and promoting human health; and providing humanitarian assistance and aiding post-crisis transitions.
  • Completed an agency-wide reorganization and "right-sizing" effort to streamline the agency.
  • Introduced reforms to open up USAID's procurement to the best expertise in America, whether that expertise is located in Seattle, Milwaukee or other places "outside the beltway."
  • Reduced project design time by 75 percent and developed a framework to unify USAID's multiple personnel systems.
Our efforts are succeeding. So much so that a member of the Ferris Commission which President Bush appointed to review USAID in 1993, said "This is the most remarkable transformation of a government agency I have ever seen."
What the above citation does not make reference to, though, is the collateral gutting of the policy and evaluation function within USAID. This began to be reversed at the end of the Bush administration, and now is being supposedly being revamped under this administration. See this note from a 2004 review of USAID evaluation:
The Government Performance Review Act (GPRA) and the advent of re-engineering in 1993 were cited most often by those interviewed as the turning point for the demise of the evaluation function in the Agency. The fact that Agency guidance is inconsistent, providing guidance in the Automated Directives System (ADS) that only "recommends" each Strategic Objective be evaluated once during its lifetime but elsewhere stating that submission of evaluations is MANDATORY, allows already overburdened Missions whose staff is inadequately trained in evaluation techniques to either ignore the evaluation requirement, the submission requirement or both.

With the push for performance monitoring and management for results, at some point Agency decision makers became confused and began to equate performance monitoring with evaluation. Thus, USAID has come to its current state - a meagerly-staffed evaluation office in the Bureau for Policy and Program Coordination and multiple, uncoordinated, sometimes unsatisfactory Bureau and Mission attempts at evaluating, often with little knowledge of solid evaluation techniques and certainly without systematic submission to the Agency's central knowledge repository.
On the issue of the impact of State Department control of USAID, I don't have much direct personal experience, as this only took place in 2006 (and my last work as a USAID contractor was in Feb. 2007). (One should not confuse the increasing oversight by State of USAID in 2001 with this later policy move.) There, one of the main issues seems to be the changing focus to short-term priorities over more long-term development goals, as noted by the Foreign Affairs piece in late 2008 (and cited in this TNR piece):
...Atwood joined two other former USAID administrators--M. Peter McPherson (Reagan) and Andrew Natsios (Bush II)--in penning an article for Foreign Affairs that criticized the 2006 decision to bring USAID under State Department control. The former administrators argued that the agency was focusing too much on the short-term provision of emergency goods and services, and not enough on long-term development work. “[R]esources devoted to postconflict transitions,” they lamented, “now exceed development investments in peaceful nations.”
But frankly, I think the other historic problems with USAID noted above are more important in explaining the precariousness of USAID's overall mission.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Chavez vs. Chavez

I was drawn to the comparison of the two Chavez's in Josh's Hemispheric Brief yesterday, especially by the op-ed by Prof. Jeffrey Rubin, who has lead a research team looking at social movements in recent years with funding from OSI's Latin America Program.  In reading the two pieces, I think the main point of both -- the fundamental flaws of personality-driven politics -- is missed in the brief characterization above, which mostly highlights the positive aspects of both men.

In fact, Miriam Pawel, a journalist who's just written a book about Cesar Chavez,  laments his over-idealization -- as one suspects from the title and subtitle: "Not just to praise Cesar:  Cesar Chavez has been elevated to iconic status without his legacy having been critically examined". The main thrust of her piece is as follows:
The first half of the story has been widely told and Chavez's place in history justly celebrated. His birthday is already a holiday in California and several other states. But the David-versus-Goliath victories are only a piece of the Chavez story.

Chief among the lessons we should take from his life is that heroes are human, with real flaws. You follow them blindly at your own risk. The biggest regret that many who worked closely with Chavez now express is that they did not speak up for what they believed in when it might have mattered. They failed to fight to keep building a labor union when Chavez veered determinedly toward his vision of a communal movement for poor people, based on an ideology of sacrifice.

A second lesson is that the inspirational leaders who build movements are not necessarily suited to run organizations. Chavez was a brilliant strategist, most comfortable in the adversarial role he termed the "nonviolent Viet Cong." By contrast, he dismissed as "nonmissionary work" the day-to-day routine of administering a labor union, negotiating contracts and resolving grievances. He lacked the interest to focus on those more mundane issues -- or the will to delegate the work to others and relinquish control.

His insistence on absolute control demonstrates a third lesson: When you empower people, they may not choose to wield their power toward the goals you believe they should. Chavez was a risk-taker, and he taught others to take risks. But trusting workers to run their own union was one risk he adamantly refused to take. That cost farmworkers the best chance they ever had at building an effective and lasting union.

None of this appears in California's official curriculum, a selective and glowing account of Chavez's life, developed in conjunction with his heirs and adopted by the state Board of Education to fulfill the law that established Cesar Chavez Day.
And the money grafs of the Rubin piece similarly highlight the "lessons" of Hugo Chavez as failing to promote real democratic norms:
For Cesar Chavez to have succeeded in his dream of dignity and well-being for farmworkers, he would have needed to combine his visionary commitment to building a movement with attention to the day-to-day details of making a labor union work for its members. He would have had to set up procedures for debate and voting – a democracy inside the UFW movement. Farmworkers needed a progressive movement and democracy to be able to take on the interests of the powerful and sustain the gains for which they fought so hard.

The same is true for Hugo Chávez. To make good on his promises of dignity and well-being for poor Venezuelans, he needs to combine his movement with real commitment to democratic institutions and procedures before it’s too late. That means freeing the radio stations and newspapers to say what they want, bringing fairness and robust competition back to courts and elections, and keeping social movements mobilized and in the streets.

The movements behind Chávez, in turn, need to press for real change while insisting on the means to hold leaders accountable, not signing over their autonomy to one big, Chávez-led project. Venezuelans need not only a movement in the streets but the working, day-to-day practices of democracy to forge more humane alternatives to the brutal market economy that has devastated their country.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Don't mess with Texas

From today's NYT book review of "Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire," a new book by historian Robert Perkinson:
As Perkinson sets out to tell the story of America’s movement from, in his words, “the age of slavery to the age of incarceration,” with the latter period beginning in the mid-1960s and continuing to the present day, he concentrates on Texas in part because the modern surge of its inmate population has far outstripped even the spike in national numbers. Between 1965 and 2000, the number of prisoners in the country rose by 600 percent; in Texas, the growth was twice that. The state ranks near the very top for the percentage of its people kept behind bars. And for well over a century, Texas has held to a perspective on penology — an outlook devoid even of the goal, let alone the reality, of rehabilitation — that now dominates the nation. The state, in Perkinson’s eyes, has provided a “template for a more fearful and vengeful society,” for a country that no longer aims, with its inmates, “to repair and redeem but to warehouse, avenge and permanently differentiate convicted criminals from law-abiding citizens.”

The template was mostly formed, according to “Texas Tough,” by slavery and its aftermath. Defeated in the Civil War, Texas and its Southern confederates were desperate to retain as much dominion as possible over their former slaves, and they found a way through law enforcement. Blacks seized for low-level crimes faced severe punishment with little chance of defending themselves in court. Perkinson tells of a black man sentenced to two years for stealing a pair of shoes and another sent away for five for snatching a bushel of corn. In the three years following the war, Texas’ inmate population nearly quadrupled — and darkened considerably in skin color, with former slaves soon outnumbering whites. Over the next few decades, these new black prisoners were rented out to an array of private businesses under a system known as convict leasing, which replicated slavery for its brutality and may well have exceeded it in disregard for human life....

Much as emancipation brought on a penal backlash against Southern blacks, so did the civil rights movement — except that this later reaction was national. Equal protection, desegregation and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty were quickly followed by tougher drug laws and crackdowns on crime that, with conscious intention or not, made blacks a target. Since the triumphs of the civil rights movement, the disparity between black and white incarceration rates has almost doubled. In the early 21st century, the country, Perkinson suggests, has in a sense become the late-19th-century South.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Perverse incentives for law enforcement, at home and abroad

With help from the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, the Washington Post today has a disturbing story today about ICE laying out perverse incentives for running up the numbers when it comes to deportations. Contrary to previous statements by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and ICE chief John Morton that DHS would prioritize deportations of the most violent illegal immigrants, these reporters got their hands on some internal memos and spoke with anonymous employees detailing the new guidelines:

Since November, ICE field offices in Northern California, Dallas and
Chicago have issued new evaluation standards and work plans for enforcement agents who remove illegal immigrants from jails and prisons. In some cases, for example, the field offices are requiring that agents process an average of 40 to 60 cases a month to earn "excellent" ratings.

Such standards present a problem, said one San Francisco area agent who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisal. Instead of taking a day to prepare a case against a legal resident with multiple convictions for serious crimes, agents may choose to process a drunk driver or nonviolent offender who agrees to leave the country voluntarily, because it will take only hours.

This reminds me of the numbers game that DEA and FBI agents working in Colombia are encouraged to play when working on extradition cases, as noted in a policy brief published last December by the Bogota-based Fundacion Ideas para la Paz (FIP). And their reporting was also based on interviews with former DEA and FBI agents:

“The DEA has statistical fever,” the same former DEA agent said. “You need to get those numbers.” By numbers he means arrests and extraditions. He added that during the reviews, his superiors would frequently ask him about why he did not have a higher number of arrests. “You won’t see it written down anywhere, but that’s what they care about,” the former DEA agent said, referring to the number of arrests.

A former FBI agent agreed with this assessment and said at times it applied to his agency as well, often for the budgetary reasons mentioned above. “Extradition of low level members of a drug trafficking organization, it’s a gimmee, it’s a bump in the stats. You got bodies. It doesn’t necessarily mean the investigation was particularly successful realistically speaking, but it looks good on paper. It looks good as far as the number of indictments and subsequent extraditions that came out of a particular case. Where again it’s easy. And if somebody happens to fall into that network that dragnet at the local level can be lumped into the conspiracy
they are. And the government agencies both in the host country and the US look all the more better for it. There’s a justification by numbers that needs to be demonstrated to hold on to whatever’s left of the counternarcotics portion of law enforcement’s budget because everything else is being diverted to national defense and counterterrorism.”

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Honduras again, in Foreign Policy

Here are a few graphs from a good op-ed (if I do say so myself) published this week at
Although coup leaders and others question Zelaya's method and motives, this crisis has revealed that many Hondurans still want a significant reform of their country's Constitution. It was the United States' own handpicked negotiator, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who called the Honduran Constitution "the worst in the world." With neither any clause for impeachment nor any recourse for amendment, Arias had the document dead to rights. And it is easy to imagine the events of June repeating themselves if serious debate over constitutional reform does not continue once the facade of democracy is restored. Indeed, it is just this sort of national conversation that the majority of Hondurans still seem to desire. Just one month ago, 54 percent of Honduran respondents told a U.S. polling firm that a constitutional assembly would now be the best way for resolving the current crisis.

In the end, the Honduran people themselves will need to decide what, if any, changes they want to make to their Constitution, and whether any such changes can be made through a piecemeal reform process or whether a constitutional assembly to rewrite the document altogether will ultimately be necessary. For now, however, the United States should publicly support such a conversation, beyond Sunday's vote. And most importantly, it should do its part to ensure an open political environment exists for doing so.

In other words, don't bless these elections and walk away. Instead, Washington should maintain its suspension of government-to-government assistance and not recognize the newly elected regime until there is a full restoration of civil liberties and steps are taken to prosecute human rights abuses. Next, the Obama team should work with the Organization of American States and other democracies -- the vast majority of which is reluctant to endorse these elections -- to find a way to bring Honduras back into the international community. For starters, if the new government is to recover any semblance of legitimacy, it will need to ensure that adequate conditions exist for a broad and pluralistic debate and dialogue, including with respect to any constitutional issues. Moreover, such a dialogue should be seen as responding to the legitimate rights and concerns of Honduran citizens, rather than being branded as treason, as is customary for the coup government today.

Supporting this next process may be the only way for the United States to retain a trace of goodwill among many rightfully frustrated Hondurans -- not to mention the rest of Latin America, disappointed that five months of hemispheric unity might end because of a hasty and ill-considered decision to recognize Sunday's elections.

George Vickers is the director of international operations at the Open Society Institute.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What do they take us for, stupid?

It's quite the indicator of just how mediocre the State Department has been that they think they can bluff their way through the various mixed signals they're responsible for. From Tyler Bridge's story posted yesterday in the Miami Herald:
The U.S. State Department helped broker a deal that called for the Honduran Congress to vote on whether to allow Zelaya to finish his term. But once Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon made televised comments last week that seemed to remove pressure from Washington, Honduras' Congress has made no plans to vote on whether to enact the agreement.

Shannon said last week that the deal meant that the Obama administration would accept the outcome of the Nov. 29 presidential and congressional elections, regardless of whether Zelaya was back in power.

... Shannon made his comments last week to CNN en Español. State Department spokesman Charles Luoma Overstreet in an e-mail to McClatchy questioned the widespread interpretation of what Shannon said and sent a transcript of the interview that left out the relevant quotes. The actual transcript shows Shannon twice confirming that the U.S. would respect the outcome of the elections no matter whether Zelaya were restored.

A senior State Department official declined to discuss Shannon's statements Monday, saying instead, ``What we're trying to do is get the parties to follow the accord. . . . If the accord is not implemented fully, that will affect international perceptions.''
Needless to say, this may be the first election anywhere, anytime, in which the legitimacy of a highly dubious electoral scenario is validated ex ante by the U.S. government.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Why the Guaymuras Accord is a lost cause, and other Saturday morning musings

Even if the parties were to go back to the negotiating table, it is quite clear that the Honduran Congress will not agree to reverse their June 28 acceptance of Zelaya's resignation letter (that's right - that would be the letter with the fake Zelaya signature) anytime soon. As I argued yesterday, that's a clear precondition for moving forward with the unity government.

Lucia Newman, Aljazeera International's Latin America editor (and a respected former CNN correspondent and past winner of Maria Cabot Moors prize) noted Thursday:
"There is a lot that has not been worked out; the most important point is whether or not [Zelaya] the deposed president will be returned to power [before elections scheduled for November 29]. I can tell you that the way the numbers look, it does not look good for Zelaya."
And Tim Padgett has a quote from Pepe Lobo in the piece he filed yesterday for Time that demonstrates how hard it will be to push this back:
"Micheletti and Zelaya made a pact, and as long as that pact is carried out the world has to recognize the elections as valid," he says. "So at this point, what does it matter which of them is in office when the election is held?" Lobo also knows that as long as the vote is sanctioned by the U.S., from whom Honduras gets the lion's share of its trade and aid, he needn't lose too much sleep over the fact that the rest of the world will probably still refuse to recognize his election if Zelaya is not restored.
Other random readings this morning include the New York Times editorial , which has so many errors of fact and misinterpretation it's almost not worth reading. Rosemary Joyce laughs and cries at the State Department spokesperson's attempt to explain the inexplicable and defend the indefensible. For my money, the best editorials are always to be found in the Los Angeles Times, as in this Thursday editorial.

In addition to OAS Secretary General Insulza's strong comments yesterday about the need to restore Zelaya, only Bloomberg (also consistently reliable source of information) appears to report on the call by the foreign ministers of the Rio Group (a group of 23 Latin American and some Caribbean countries that notably does not include the U.S. or Canada, but does include key US allies such as Colombia, Mexico and Peru) that Zelaya's restitution is "imperative" and an "indispensable requirement."

Will Stibbens, Al Jazeera International's Washington Bureau Chief (and former Latin America regional editor of the the Associated Press Television Network) has a worthwhile editorial proclaiming the Honduran "oligarchy" to be the clear winners of this process so far. As for Zelaya:

After a bold and deft campaign to regain power, and with the prize within his grasp, he committed a critical, strategic blunder.

Zelaya believed that it would be enough to sacrifice his social project, and the mass movement that backed it, to convince his political enemies to restore him to the presidency.

His representatives signed an agreement that categorically forbids the convening of a national constituent assembly, or any other form of popular referendum on the constitution, but without a written guarantee of a return to power for Zelaya.

That was left up to the congress, who appear poised, in the face of US indifference, to deny him even this hollow victory.

As for other winners and losers, Stibbens continues:

What could have been a diplomatic victory for Washington, is now looking like another example of its clumsiness, which will end up exacerbating ideological divisions. If the agreement does collapse there will be repercussions, and collateral damage, throughout the region.

Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president who from the start condemned the negotiating track led by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias as a trap, will be vindicated.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Rethinking the Honduran Deal

Where to start in commenting on Honduras? The Economist piece cited in Josh's news summary today was on the money in its skepticism of the deal. Many of the rest of us, naively thinking that the Administration knew what it was doing when it declared victory with the Accord, were wrong. There was so much "constructive ambiguity" to how this deal would play out that there were far too many loopholes. I thought that the Administration (and Shannon) would not have touted an accord if they didn't think Zelaya would not be restored to power, if they didn't think that there were the votes in Congress to do this.

That's clearly the argument that Shannon used to persuade Zelaya to sign this. Indeed, on Friday, October 30th, the day after the accord, Shannon responded to the question about whether we might reach Nov. 29th elections with Micheletti still in power:

There is not a timeline for the congress to take a decision and the negotiators were very clear on this. In fact, last night, Mr. Zelaya’s chief negotiator came out and said that the commission could not impose a timeline on the congress because it was an independent institution. But there is a political dynamic here and a political imperative for the congress to move quickly on this decision. It’s just not something that can be ignored in the short term.
Granted, we all knew that there was no timeline, but statements like this plus reports from those close to Zelaya, indicated that there was reason to think that something would happen in Congress very quickly. That the National Party would see it in its interests to vote to return Zelaya to a basically powerless, caretaker post for a couple of months.

My own reaction to the accord was too much influenced by the often-times synchronized nature of accords -- if one side does one thing, the other side responds. Like Zelaya, I looked at the accord and saw Nov. 5 as D-Day -- because why would Zelaya supporters deem to integrate a government of national unity and reconciliation if Zelaya were not restored to power? (Zelaya took logic that a step further -- the swearing in of a new and legitimate cabinet requires a legitimate president, i.e., Zelaya, to do the job.)

Clearly we were not alone in this interpretation. In recent days, Lagos was clear that the return of Zelaya had to be part of the solution. On Tuesday, OAS Secretary General Insulza said: "La única salida de paz es restablecer al Presidente (Manuel) Zelaya por el escaso tiempo que le queda en la presidencia.... "Yo espero que [el congreso] lo hagan pronto. No creo que lo vayan a hacer hoy día, pero lo ideal sería que lo hicieran ya."

The accord just doesn't make sense from Zelaya's perspective unless he expected to be restored by Nov. 5th. It makes sense that Zelaya would not want to legitimate a "unity government" by sending hisrepresentatives to participate before he was restored to power.

And now that they are not there, the only way he would (and should) accept being restored to power is to redesign the entire cabinet. And what are the chances of that happening? I realize this would be largely symbolic, as his own presidency would have been at this point, but such symbolism is incredibly important -- the symbolism of allowing a country to throw out a president, and getting away with it by simply holding elections and moving on.

We started getting inklings of a far different interpretation of what we could expect to happen when Tom Shannon was quoted on CNN en Espanol a couple of days ago. (By the way, was that really the appropriate venue to finally be crystal clear about the US position?). In that 6-minute interview, Shannon clarified that Zelaya's return to power had nothing to do with the "unity government" or the elections -- that elections could happen without Zelaya's return, and the US would be okay with that.
"Officially, whatever happens in this process, the United States will recognize what happens on the 29th?" the CNN reporter asked Shannon (my translation). "Si - exactamente," replied Shannon.
At the same time, we now know that there were, in fact, incentives for the State Department's position. Indeed, The Hill reported last night that Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) released the hold on Shannon and Valenzuela's nominations, noting:
Secretary Clinton and Assistant Secretary [of Western Hemisphere Affairs Tom] Shannon have assured me that the U.S. will recognize the outcome of the Honduran elections regardless of whether Manuel Zelaya is reinstated. I take our administration at their word that they will now side with the Honduran people and end their focus on the disgraced Zelaya.
Today we have word that, no sooner had DeMint's hold been lifted on Shannon, than was another one placed by Senator George Lemieux (newly appointed Florida Republican to replace Mel Martinez). According an email circulating from DC advocacy groups, he has done so "at the behest of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, which is still furious over Secretary Shannon's impeccable handling of the Cuba OAS resolution earlier this year."

What's clear now is that this wasn't the great deal it was hyped up to be -- rather, it was a high-stakes poker game, and Zelaya got snookered. The US didn't "broker" or mediate this deal. All it did was weigh in one specific point about what the process would be to potentially return Zelaya to power -- i.e., send it to Congress, not the Supreme Court. Most all the other points were hardly different than what had been agreed upon weeks, if not months, ago.

Now that the Guaymuras Accord has failed, it's the US government with egg on its face. The State Department's defines sucess as the mere fact that it had persuaded everyone to come to an agreement about the rules of this poker game. Who wins or loses would be beside the point -- and so it's time to declare victory and move on. In its hasty zeal to reach an agreement, and end a diplomatic headache, the State Department has given us "diplomacy on the cheap" (as one former US diplomat referred to it a few weeks ago) and a fundamentally worse situation.

Why? The Economist (and one has to credit Michael Reid here) called it right when it predicted what would happen if Congress delayed:

...the united front against the coup in the outside world may buckle. The United States, which has already reopened its visa office in Tegucigalpa, the capital, appears willing to recognise the elections whether or not Congress votes to restore Mr Zelaya. But most of Latin America is unlikely to follow suit unless Mr Zelaya is reinstated before the ballot—especially since the head of the electoral tribunal says that anyone calling for a boycott will be jailed.
In addition to the ALBA countries, I think you can add Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Chile to the list of countries who do not recognize these elections, for starters. So hemispheric unity was shortlived, and the OAS will be more divided than before. Something else will have to budge to change this situation, as I rather doubt the US will be able to muster the two-thirds' vote needed to remove Honduras' suspension from the OAS. This is successful US diplomacy?

And the consequences of this for Honduras? Again, the Economist:
The army, having submitted to civilian authority for the past decade or more, has re-emerged as a political actor. An old-established two-party system is giving way to a far more polarising class divide. And the rule of law has been circumvented by both sides. “This is the repetition of 100 years of Honduran history,” says Mr Díaz Arrivillaga. “It’s the same ghosts: stopping communism, selective violations of human rights, constitutional breaches, and agreements among elites and caudillos sponsored by the United States. It’s nothing new.” In one of the poorest countries in the region, that lack of novelty is all the more depressing.
I fear we're in for months, if not years, of continued social and political conflict and unrest.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Some thoughts on Barack and his church

I was just reading this op-ed written by Cass Sunstein, and I think I had an insight into why Obama might have stuck through some 20 years of services at Trinity UCC in Chicago with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, even when he didn't agree with everything that might have been said at any given moment. I think this whole thing strikes us as so politically foolish, and we think it's hard to understand how Obama could have let this happen at all. The problem with this perspective, however, may be the difference between the kind of politics we're used to seeing from our politicians, and the new kind of politics that Obama claims to (and very well may) represent. I don't think any of us believe that Obama holds political views that are similar to that of his pastor, although the political problem for him now is that people may start to think that he does. The root of the problem, speaking for myself (and perhaps for others), though, is why he didn't foresee this as an issue? Is he really not as politically smart as he's been cranked up to be?

The context that Obama's tried to put forth is one in which Wright is a hugely popular preacher (his is the largest congregation in the entire UCC denomination) and is someone who clearly speaks to the heart of the African-American community in Chicago -- the same community where Obama got his start as a community organizer, and which he represented in the Illinois State Senate. Wright married Obama and Michelle, he baptised their daughters, and he "brought Obama to Jesus." Yet, Obama must have heard Wright say some controversial things from time to time. But if that was the case, would it not have been so much easier for Obama to conveniently move on to a less controversial church -- to one that might not end up becoming a thorn in his political side should he ever seek higher office, say, that of U.S. Senator, or beyond? If Obama is such a smart a politician (which I think he is), or if his ambition is so great (something which I think any presidential candidate must have), why then did he not long ago take what was clearly the more politically expedient path, and move on to another church at the slightest hint of potential future controversy?

I don't want to reduce his spiritual motivations to that of pure political calculation, but think about the current situation as you read the op-ed from Sunstein that I link to above. Think about the Obama that Sunstein describes here -- fiercely independent, not afraid to listen to the deep beliefs of those who think differently -- and you'll see that he's not someone who's always going to take the politically correct or "safe" path to success. (Of course, one could also explain his remaining in Wright's church as a sign of pure loyalty -- but his public distancing of himself from Wright over a year ago, just as he announced his candidacy for the presidency, as well as his recent statements, surely underscores the limits to that hypothesis.)

So what strikes me about Obama's sticking with his church is that, given where Obama came from, I can imagine that he felt it was important not to lose touch with this Afro-centric perspective -- he wanted to be challenged, not just uplifted, when he went to church. And given his general inclination to think for himself, perhaps he got caught up in his own self-confidence, not thinking that he was going to have to "denounce and reject" the political views of someone from whom he had received a great deal of spiritual insight and comfort. Is this really all that inconsistent for a guy who's made a point of saying that he would sit down with dictators as a means of resolving political tensions!

So let's call him wildly naive, politically stupid, or unreasonably loyal, but we might also entertain the notion that he's actually practicing what he preaches -- namely, that the idea of accepting "the possibility that the other side might sometimes have a point" is not something that you toss aside on your way to political power, rather it's what you embrace as the only possible way to get there.

WOLA and the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center in Mexico

I'm glad to see that my old outfit, the Washington Office on Latin America, is starting to use youtube and videos.

Here we have Ana Paula Hernandez, fundraising consultant for the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center, based in Guerrero, Mexico, talks to the Washington Office on Latin America about the relationship between the two organizations and WOLA's role in helping the Center achieve its mission.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Hillary's Math Problem

I haven't played around with the Slate delegate calculator, but Jonathan Alter at Newsweek has, and finds that Hillary could win the next sixteen contests handily and still not catch up in terms of pledged delegates.

So why, assuming wins Ohio today, will be forced to continue underwriting the Democratic mudslinging contest that is sure to unfold over the coming weeks, all to the benefit of John McCain?

GOTC (get out to caucus)

Things have slowed down quite a bit, but there's a steady trickle. It's actually nice for us, because then we have time to talk to (usually self-identified) Obama supporters, to explain the inexplicable -- i.e., why they MUST vote twice today. As Bill Clinton says, Texas is the only place in the country where you can vote twice without getting arrested.

Turnout in this very Republican area is running 2-to-1 for the Democrats (oh, forgot to mention there is a GOP primary going on as well!) That's a total turnaround from the traditional numbers. Hard to know, but I will not be surprised if this precinct goes 2-to-1 for Obama, many of whom say they will come back at 7 pm tonight to caucus.

Why the heck does Texas have both a primary and a caucus?

I've been asking that question for days, and had not yet gotten to the bottom of it. But I think the New Republic primer on the Texas primary explains it well:

Why The (Ridiculously Confusing) Hybrid System Exists
Up until about 30 years ago, Texas was a strong Democratic state, and presidential caucuses--the preferred system prior to 1976--were little more than local turf wars between the liberal and the conservative wings of the party establishment. According to Dr. Patrick Cox, Associate Director for Congressional and Political History at the University of Texas, prior to the 1970s, the Texas Democrats used the "unit rule," meaning that all delegates--often under the guidance of the governor--supported one candidate at the national convention. From about 1950 until the mid-'70s, the conservative wing dominated, most notably in the persons of governors R. Allan Shivers and John Connally, Jr.

But in the lead-up to the 1976 presidential nominations, conservative Democrats were concerned that the liberal faction was better organized--and that this would hurt the presidential aspirations of one of their own, then-senator Lloyd Bentsen. They made a forceful push for a primary, which they believed would give an edge to the more popular candidate, instead of the one with the best organization. Unable to roll the liberal wing of the party, the conservatives eventually settled on a compromise, where two-thirds of the pledged delegates (126 total) are decided by primary, and the remaining one-third (67) are decided in caucus. (Bentsen lost to Jimmy Carter anyway.)

Read the whole post for a good summary of further aspects of the primary/caucus system.

The joys of phone-banking

I got this email from a friend on Sunday:

Omg-a lady just cried to me & told me that she knew God made me call because she was undecided & she is now going to vote for Obama!

From NBC's First Read today

*** Other things to watch: Here are a few very plausible scenarios: Obama could net more delegates out of Vermont than Clinton does out of Ohio. Clinton can win both Ohio and Texas, 52%-48%, and lose the overall delegate battle tonight, thanks to how both Texas and Ohio award more delegates in African-American heavy areas as well as those crazy Texas caucuses. Speaking of Texas, Obama likely has a five-point cushion on the delegate front, meaning he could lose the state by five points and still net delegates. How will the media handle Clinton winning two states but Obama winning the most delegates tonight? Who wins the night? Bonus question: Who do we reward the state of Texas to if Clinton wins the popular vote in the primary but Obama nets the most delegates? And finally, for all the talk of bias against Clinton's campaign in the media, does anyone believe any other candidate could have lost 11-straight contests, be this far behind in delegates, and be simply two victories away from being back in the game? One thing the media has done is they've given Clinton every chance she wants to write her own comeback story. She gets another shot today.

Tuesday morning, 8:30 am

So, we've got 4 people hanging out right now in front of the school
for Obama. Hillary: zero presence, not even a yard sign. So that's

I'm pleasantly surprised at the number of people interested in
caucusing tonight for Obama. And it's great when some short-haired,
redneck-looking guy in a pickup truck waves at you in support. To a
person, every African-American I've met is for Obama, and most are
planning to caucus tonight. I have a feeling the energy tonight is
going to be electric.

Organizing by email

This is an example of the kind of go-get'm emails I've been receiving from our stellar organizer:

Fort Worth Warriors –

Time to shine…it’s Election Day! Before my official send off, I want to answer 3 quick questions:

  1. Question: Should we switch the names on the sign-in sheets if someone from a non-viable group (ie. a few Edwards supporters) decides to switch their vote to Barack? Answer: We are working on it…for right now I wouldn’t mess with the sign-in sheets. I’ll try to get more info, though.
  2. Question: What do we do if someone comes to the wrong location? Answer: Get them to the right location!!! They can’t caucus at your location – they’ve got to get in their car and drive as fast as they can to the new one!
  3. Question: Where’s the party? Answer: 8:00p (or when your caucus gets out) at BoomerJack's Grill & Bar, 2600 West 7th St., Fort Worth 76107 Come join!

Remember – enjoy today, breathe (frequently), and don’t forget that you’re part of an incredible team that supports you. And in the midst of all the craziness, take 5 seconds to remind yourself that you part of one of the most incredible campaigns in American history. That’s pretty remarkable.

Good luck, go get ‘em, and know that…


All right, now off to the polls!

Election news slow tonight

The Politex blog at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram is one place to look for news, but it reports that results may be slowing in coming tonight:

Local election officials have told Politex that many polling places may not report their results until hours after the polls close at 7 p.m.

There are two reasons:

1) Polls officially close at 7 p.m. but those still in line will be allowed to vote. Local officials are bracing for the possibility that some polling locations may have more than 100 people still waiting to vote at 7 p.m.

2) Many election clerks and judges plan on participating in the precinct conventions once everyone has voted and polls close. That means some won't deliver the poll results to the county until AFTER the precinct convention, which could be hours later.

The Texas Democratic Party sent me a memo from the Secretary of State's office that said, "The responsible election judge or clerk must complete the paperwork, finish making out returns, and deliver the records and ballots to the custodian before he or she may attend the precinct convention."

In practice, at least in Tarrant County, this isn't going to happen. Tarrant County Elections Administrator Steve Raborn said he wouldn't be surprised if some polling places don't report their results to him until after midnight because the election workers were at the precinct conventions. By 11 p.m. tomorrow, he wasn't sure if he would have results from 50 percent of the county's precincts.

The Texas Two-Step

It's 6:15 am, and I'm at Starbucks in Fort Worth. I've been calling and walking and talking these past three days, and today's the big vote. I'll show up to my precinct in suburban southwest Fort Worth in about half an hour where, along with several other local volunteers, we'll maintain a "visibility" presence throughout the day, encouraging Obama voters (and, alas, surely a few others) to return to the precinct polling place (a local elementary school) later that night to caucus. Four of us met last night at the local Barnes and Nobles, and then participated in a conference call with our Obama Field Organizer, a very talented, articulate and detail-oriented 23-year-old (I'm guessing) Lily West, originally from the DC area. She's been in Iowa and Nevada, and lord knows where else for the past year, and she's a real pro. I'd hire her in a minute to organize just about anything.

I'd hoped to write some of my thoughts here earlier, but the "urgency of now" usually meant that I should make phone calls instead. Nevertheless, I'll try to do some mobile blogging today, in little snippets, whenever I have a moment's reprieve. We've got good weather for today, up to the 50s, after snowing briefly (and oddly last night) -- Saturday it was in the 80s!

I've been alternately depressed and inspired, and have absolutely NO idea what the day will be like. I did just hear that Texas's Secretary of State predicts a 3 million-plus turnout, breaking a record of some 20 years ago for a primary. What's for sure is that (1) many people are voting in their first primary ever, (2) probably 98% of those caucusing tonight will be doing so for the first time ever -- most people have never even heard of such a contraption!, and (3) I have no idea what kind of turnout the Clinton folks will deliver. Regarding the latter, they seem clearly less organized, in every conceivable way, but there is a bedrock of support for Hillary and Bill, and we'll see how that works out.

So stay tuned for the occasional, and hopefully not too mundane, observation throughout the day. Yes We Can!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Texas Diaries

So, I'm headed to Fort Worth, Texas this morning (waiting for that 4:30 am cab to National Airport), land of my youth, to vote -- and to organize. Well, if I'm luckly I'll get to organize a precinct caucus, or convention (as they call it in Texas. Caucus rhymes with "raucus", which sounds more appropriate for Cowtown, but convention better describes the conventionally conservative politics of Fort Worth.) Anyway, I think I'll have some tales to tell. I'm glad I'm leaving early, because as it turns out I've got a precinct captain training at Obama headquarters on the North Side by the Stockyards at 10 am. Hillary was kind enough to schedule a rally at 11 am just outside our door as well, so perhaps I'll get a glimpse of her.

I'll be blogging once a day (starting tomorrow morning) at Burnt Orange Report, and may or may not cross-post here. Internet connections are not so prevalent down Texas way -- gotta make a run for the Panera Bread up on University Blvd, or the Panther Coffee Shop over by TCU, or -- if I'm lucky -- I'll be able to hijack a signal from a neighbor of my brother or mother. Okay, I guess it's obvious now that I've only gotten three hours sleep.

Anyway, I'm glad to go and knock on doors for the Obama campaign. I've been telling people ever since Feb. 4th that he has a chance of winning Texas, mainly because I've been reading the very political science-y analysis of such a possibility at the Burnt Orange Report, but now it seems like it's going to happen. Maybe it'll be something to tell the grandkids about, er...., well, make that something to tell other people's grandkids about -- how I helped wrap up the Obama nomination in Texas.

Friday, February 29, 2008

'1,000 years in Iraq'

This is good:

Clinton campaign gets desperate in Texas

From today's startlegram (i.e., Fort Worth Star-Telegram), this scoop:
AUSTIN -- The Texas Democratic Party is warning that its primary night caucuses could be delayed or disrupted after aides to White House hopeful Hillary Clinton raised the specter of an "imminent" lawsuit over its complicated delegate selection process, officials said Thursday night....

"Both campaigns have made it clear that they would go there if they had to, but I think the imminent threat is coming from one campaign," said one top Democratic official, referring to the Clinton campaign. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

Another Democratic source who was privy to the often intense discussions confirmed that representatives of the New York senator's campaign had issued veiled threats in a telephone call this week.

"Officials from Sen. Clinton's campaign at several times throughout the call raised the specter of 'challenging the process,'" the official said. "The call consisted of representatives from both campaigns and the Democratic Party."

The source, who was not authorized to speak about the matter on the record, said Clinton's political director, Guy Cecil, had pointedly raised the possibility of a courtroom battle.

"Best run campaign in American history" -- thanks to volunteers and the internet

Not sure if Mark White is referring to the campaign in Texas, or nationally. What is certain is that the spontaneous, grassroots support for Obama in Texas enabled his professional campaign staff to come in with an advantage, just as it did in Ohio.

Former Gov. Mark White of Texas:

"I'll tell you what. This is probably the best-run campaign in American history, and I've been involved in them since 1976 when I was (Texas) secretary of state," he added. "If this guy runs the country like he's run his campaign, we're all in for a happy surprise."

The Wall Street Journal today:

Sen. Barack Obama's pivotal victories last month in Iowa and South Carolina over Sen. Hillary Clinton were engineered by professional staffers who worked those states for nearly a year. In Texas, the story has been a lot different. 1

His organization in the Lone Star State, which holds its potentially decisive presidential primary on Tuesday, has been "more like a baling wire and duct tape thing," says Mitch Stewart, who is running the campaign here. Mr. Stewart and the first dozen paid Obama staffers touched down in this capital city less than three weeks ago.

The uncharacteristic late start has left the Illinois senator relying to an unusual degree on the groundwork of volunteers such as Ian Davis. The 29-year-old Austin community organizer has been laboring for months with no guidance at all from Obama headquarters. When Sen. Obama's team finally arrived, Mr. Davis handed over laundry baskets stuffed with 20,000 handwritten names of potential volunteers, which Mr. Davis had gathered on his own.

"At the end of the day," Mr. Stewart says, it will be people like Ian Davis "who win this thing."
Of course, internet tools for organizing also played a fundamental role:
As the voting in Iowa and New Hampshire approached, Mr. Davis and thousands of other Texans took advantage of a powerful tool available on the Obama campaign's national Web site, The system, developed in-house and modeled after an effort created in 2004 by the liberal political action group, gives campaign volunteers unsupervised access to names and phones numbers of potential supporters nationwide, which campaigns usually treat as proprietary information.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Taking Stock of Barack on foreign policy

An editor at The National Interest reviews Obama's foreign policy views critically, but ends up with a good measure of respect:
Perhaps the best compliment to Senator Barack Obama and the relative integrity of his record is the distortion of his statements by his political opponents. From President Bush to former President Bill Clinton, Obama’s detractors have either mischaracterized or put considerable spin on his positions on key areas, such as Iraq, Pakistan and Iran. This could well be because Obama is at a substantive advantage vis-à-vis his Democratic and Republican challengers, given his publicly stated foresight on the Iraq War. And while Obama’s positions on important foreign-policy issues have not always been static (even to some degree on the Iraq War), Obama has demonstrated a willingness to acknowledge his prior position. Obama has therefore not resorted to that dark art of politics, alchemizing one’s prior positions in order to avoid acknowledging misjudgments or contradictions.

...Obama’s record is not free of vacillation or disconnect, but in broad strokes it seems to reflect logical cohesiveness and a tendency to stake politically risky positions in forthright terms—such as his stated willingness to meet with the Iranian leader. It is perhaps for this reason that his opponents prefer to recast his past positions, rather than reckon fairly with his record and proposals.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Stayin' Alive in Venezuela

The January 5th edition of the Wall Street Journal pays attention to some of Chavez's more pragmatic, post-referendum moves. I love the fact that, in addition to lifting some price controls, they're also busy importing food from the U.S. to make up for shortages (last para below):

"We have decided to open ourselves up to attend to street-level problems, like garbage and shortages, because we believe that you can't theorize about socialism if the people don't see government in action," said Jesse Chacon, the new government spokesman, during a press conference Friday to announce the cabinet changes.

Most observers believe Mr. Chávez's new strategy doesn't mean an end to his grand ambitions to remake Venezuela into a utopian society as well as stay in power for good to make that vision a reality. Instead, the moves signal that his own political survival may be more important to Mr. Chávez than any ideological blueprint.

"Chavez is not rigid ideologically," says Gilbert Merkx, a Latin American specialist and director at Duke University's Center for International Studies. "He is very improvisational and has a floating ideology that allows him to reinvent himself."

Not that anyone believes Mr. Chávez is about to become a believer in free markets. In a research note, the investment bank Goldman Sachs said it had "yet to detect signs that going forward the heterodox policy orientation will be reverted or moderated."

[Hugo Chavez]

It is also far from clear that Mr. Chávez's new team is up to the task of rectifying Venezuela's growing list of economic problems. For one, many of the new cabinet members are recycled from previous posts or other spots in the government and don't bring fresh ideas. The new finance minister, Rafael Isea, was previously vice finance minister for endogenous development. The newly named planning minister wrote a book called "Capitalism is Bad Business: Principles for Socialists."

In attacking the problem of food shortages, Mr. Chávez eased a price control on one kind of milk, but most of his solutions involve greater government intervention. Houston-based logistics managers for state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA were diverted from their usual jobs in recent months and charged with buying up tons of food from the U.S. for delivery to Caracas, where they are offered to the poor at one-day outdoor markets run by the government. "We're learning on the fly," a PDVSA worker reached by telephone said of his new mission.

Latell on Cuba

In an opinion piece in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, former national intelligence officer for Latin America Brian Latell predicts a gradual economic opening in Cuba -- along the lines of a Vietnamese or Chinese model -- with Raul's ascendancy. But on governance he says it's a matter of different styles more than anything else:

Raúl's style guarantees that Cuba will be governed differently. He'll rule more collegially than his brother, consulting trusted subordinates and delegating more. During the interregnum he has worked with officials of different generations and pedigrees, even promoting one long-time archrival to create a united front after his brother's initial withdrawal.

On his watch, Raúl has broken some previously sacred crockery as well. He has admitted that Cuba's many problems are systemic. In his disarmingly accurate view, it is not the American embargo or "imperialism" that are the cause of problems on the island, as his brother always insisted, but rather the regime's own mistakes and mindsets. He has called on Cubans, especially the youth, to "debate fearlessly" and help devise solutions for the failures. Candid discussions at the grassroots level have proliferated.

Yet like his brother, Raúl has no intention of opening Cuba to free political speech or participation. While the number of Cubans willing to voice their discontent publicly is on the increase, so too is the brutality of government reprisals against would-be leaders of the dissident movement. By acknowledging state failures, Raúl is playing with fire, and if the lid is going to be kept on, those challenging the regime have to pay a price.

He also wonders about how he will navigate the relationship with Chavez, the dependency on whom has nearly reached levels similar to that of the Soviet Union:

And there is Hugo Chávez. Unlike Fidel, Raúl has no personal rapport with the mercurial Venezuelan president, and surely no desire to be subordinated to another narcissistic potentate just as he is finally close to escaping his brother's grip. But Cuba has become highly dependent economically on Venezuela. The value of the Chávez dole, mostly oil, reached between $3 billion and $4 billion last year, approaching the amounts once provided by the Soviet Union. Raúl would be loath to provoke the Venezuelan. Without his support, the Cuban economy would soon plunge into deep recession.

There is no way to know how skillfully Raúl Castro will lead and deal with inevitable crises once his brother is gone. He clearly wants to begin rectifying economic problems but knows that, for some time at least, he cannot broadly repudiate his brother's legacy. A powerful backlash could come from fidelista hard-liners in the leadership -- and perhaps from Mr. Chávez. In the end, however, it is the gamble Raúl will have to take.

Monday, January 07, 2008

El Salvador's Obama?

The popular reception of the presidential candidacy of Mauricio Funes in El Salvador is quite unique in recent history, and might be considered analogous to the rock-star status of Barack Obama. Not to mention that the potential pro-government ARENA candidates seem to be dropping out right and left.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Battling economists

A Washington economist takes on The Economist.
There's an impending, but as yet unrealized, debate here on the perspectives laid out in Michael Reid's new book, Forgotten Continent: The Battle for Latin America's Soul, which all Latin Americanists should read and discuss.
Basically, Reid sees hope not in Chavez's so-called autocratic populism, but rather in the democratic reformist governments that have come out of Mexico, Chile and Brazil.