The tournament comes with much of the region in a funk because of crime, corruption and sluggish economies. A footballing [soccer] victory wouldn’t change that. But it would provide some joy.

(Conclusion of an article published on June 2018 in The Economist, about the current state of Latin America as it participates in the Soccer World Cup)

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Random Thought: When History Repeats Itself


¡Presente!: A demonstrator killed during a demonstration against Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega is taken to his final resting place (June 15, 2018). Photo credit: Reuters/Oswaldo Rivas. Source: Yahoo News Canada

This is a Facebook post of mine from June 1, translated from the original version in Spanish, revised, and expanded

One of the few specialists in Latin American politics that I hold in high regard is a former colleague of mine from Ohio University, Tom Walker. I consider him the most Nicaraguan gringo I know because of the decades he spent studying Nicaraguan politics, especially the Sandinista Revolution. During the 70s and 80s, Tom was one of many voices of disagreement with and protest against US foreign policy in Nicaragua, particularly US support to Anastasio Somoza’s regime and, later, the anti-Sandinista guerrillas known as contras. Tom wrote a book, now with more than 10 editions, about Nicaragua, of which I have an autographed copy that I treasure. In it, he presents an analysis of the Sandinista government established right after Somoza’s ouster, based on the idea that American political pressure through the contras and other means – rather than anything for which the government could be blamed directly – was at the heart of the gradual exhaustion of the political and socioeconomic system it envisioned, eventually leading to the transfer of power via elections to the coalition of opposition parties led by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro in 1990.

One day at OU, just before his retirement, I asked Tom about his take on what was happening in Nicaragua at that time. In broad terms, he let me know about his disappointment with Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega, to the point of accusing him of ditching the Sandinista ideals for which he fought in the past and under which he led the Nicaraguan government between 1979 and 1990. Coming from someone like Tom, with his progressive credentials, that statement was a big surprise back then.

Today, I read about Nicaragua being shaken by street demonstrations and riots demanding the ouster of Ortega, who was elected president three more times after 1990 (two of which after managing to remove term limits). Complaints against him include outright corruption, repeated electoral fraud, and the establishment of a downright autocratic system hell bent on silencing all opposition. Funny, but those were very much the same gripes around which Ortega and his fellow Sandinistas organized the guerrilla offensive that toppled Somoza back in 1979. Now, nearly 40 years later, Ortega ripped a page from the playbook of his political nemesis: he is violently repressing the demonstrations against him. As of today, Ortega’s government says only 34 people have been killed in these demonstrations so far, but human rights activists say the real number is 170; in any case, even one killed demonstrator is simply too many. (Also as of today, the government has agreed to an international probe on those deaths.) Calls for an end to the violence have been made, but basically to no avail. In turn, chavistas see no issue with Ortega’s defenestration of his prior political ideas and, true to form, portray him as a victim of the great neoliberal global conspiracy.

I find out about all this and now think that what my old colleague and dear friend Tom Walker told me years ago about Ortega is not surprising anymore. It is more like proof of his disappointment. And it also compels me to ask how Ortega feels now that he is committing the same abuses that Somoza did.

What is it like to be just another Nicaraguan dictator?

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“I’m Mad as Hell and I’m Not Going to Take It Anymore”, Brazilian Style (III)

Cue the theme from “Rocky”: Presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, holding the Brazilian flag, leads a rally. Photo credit: Ueslei Marcelino. Source: Americas Quarterly

Back in January 2014, months before the Soccer World Cup got underway, I blogged about street demonstrations held in host country Brazil against it. Among other things, I mentioned that what Brazilians likely had in mind was that there were better things to do with the exorbitant amount of money spent on the tournament, given the existence of still unresolved issues such as crumbling mass transit systems, under-resourced hospitals, and deficient schools. By the time the ref’s whistle was blown for the last time, local and visiting soccer fans saw or heard about more demonstrations, but none of those derailed the tournament or caused the same commotion in Brazil as the 2013 protests. What did cause a commotion in Brazil during the Cup was losing to the Netherlands in the third-place match. (Fortunately, though, that relatively lackluster performance was reversed with a dramatic win by penalty kicks over world champ Germany in the gold medal match at the 2016 Olympics, with Brazil’s very own soccer idol Neymar scoring the winning goal.)

In the four years that have passed since the 2014 Cup, things have gotten worse in Brazil, as I have blogged about previously and reports continue to tell us. In a recent essay, Brian Winter, editor of Americas Quarterly and someone who knows Brazil intimately, delivered a stark verdict that puts all the bad news into a depressing context: “The Brazil of mid-2018 is a frightened, leaderless, shockingly pessimistic country. It is a country where four years of scandal, violence and economic destruction have obliterated faith in not just President Michel Temer, not just the political class, but in democracy itself.” (For our purposes, we will define democracy in liberal terms – that is, unfettered electoral competition and political freedoms.) Calls for the Brazilian military to intervene have been made repeatedly as of late, in the midst of a truckers’ strike that has all but paralyzed the country, itself caused by rising gas prices. On top of that, there will be a presidential election this coming October – one of several highly consequential electoral events to be held this year in Latin America.

It is imperative to put those calls for a military intervention in perspective. In the last installment of Vanderbilt University’s AmericasBarometer, Brazil was shown as having the lowest levels of support for the political system in the Americas. Indeed, the pollsters state that those levels have been in decline since 2010 due to the double whammy of corruption and Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment. In addition, Winter mentions a 2017 Pew Research Center poll, in which 38% of Brazilians thought that military rule would be good for the country. That finding dovetails with three takeaways from the most recent Latinobarómetro poll: 1. Democracy is not supported by the majority of Brazilians (only 43% do so), 2. Satisfaction with Brazilian democracy is almost nil (13%), and 3. The military is one of the most trusted institutions in Brazil (50%), second only to the church (69%). It would not be a surprise, then, to hear about Brazilians demanding a military intervention in politics. At the same time, though, AmericasBarometer also found that Brazilians are politically tolerant – over 50% identify themselves as being in agreement with that hallmark of liberal democracy. Connecting the dots, we therefore should not interpret that public clamor in Brazil for a military intervention as an outright approval of authoritarianism as a form of government. There is no subversion to eliminate, as it was the case for the Brazilian military during its two decades in power (1964-85). What is really at play here is the public clamor to “throw the bums out,” as it happened in Venezuela at the time of the military coup that made Hugo Chávez a household name. One of Winter’s interviewees, a Brazilian political analyst, is clear about it: most Brazilians do not want a coup, but they would support one if it happened. It is not about changing the regime, but disinfecting it.

In any case, Winter also mentions that the likeliest way the Brazilian military will intervene in politics once more is not by way of a coup (at least, not according to President Temer), but by way of riding on the coattails of Jair Bolsonaro, a congressman (with a record, as of last October, of two bills passed out of 171 proposed during his 26-year legislative career) and retired army captain (with a disciplinary action for insubordination on his record) whose popularity has been steadily increasing as Brazil’s crisis has deepened, to the point of positioning himself as a front-runner and, according to some polls, the leading candidate. The incumbent defense minister likes Bolsonaro’s candidacy because he thinks Brazilians are looking for leaders with values like those embodied by the military; and Oliver Stuenkel, a professor at the prestigious Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, opines that what explains Bolsonaro’s rise is the current lack of faith in the traditional political class. Already known for speaking his mind first and maybe asking questions later, Bolsonaro once stated publicly that “a good criminal is a dead criminal” and, accordingly, has proposed a solution to Brazil’s overwhelming crime problem: basically, to emulate Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte and declare open season on criminals – both figuratively and literally. However, it is not clear at this point whether this move will increase citizen trust in law enforcement (which Latinobarómetro 2017 puts at 34%) or uproot the pervading culture of corruption within it. And it is not that Temer has been playing the lyre while Rome burns: last February, he ordered the army to take over police duties in Rio de Janeiro State until the end of the year. The only problem with that order, though, is that the army is faring no better than the police. One thing is a certainty, though: hypermilitarized police units like Rio de Janeiro State’s Special Police Operations Battalion (BOPE in Portuguese) will be delighted with the chance Bolsonaro will give them to go all out. Racial profiling? Civil rights violations? Extra-judicial killings? Oh, well. C’est la guerre.

Yet for all of Bolsonaro’s electoral appeal, he is not necessarily a shoo-in. Looming large over his chances is Lula da Silva, the former president. Electoral authorities have declared that Lula is barred from running because of his current imprisonment on corruption charges, but his lawyers believe that his ineligibility could be suspended under current law and, consequently, his party is poised to present him as a candidate, hoping that he can be officially added before election day. This is where things get really interesting. Datafolha, a well-known Brazilian polling firm, ran a series of scenarios last April and came up with very interesting outcomes: in a scenario where Lula’s name was presented to respondents, he would receive more votes than Bolsonaro, and in a scenario where Lula was not on the list, Bolsonaro would be the most voted candidate. But in a pool of at least 16 presidential candidates running under a majority rule, as it is the case in Brazil, no one is likely to even come close to the 50% necessary to win outright, which means that there will be a runoff round between the two most voted candidates in late October. In the first Datafolha scenario, that round would be disputed between Lula (31%) and Bolsonaro (15%), and in the second scenario, it would be Bolsonaro (17%) versus 2014 runner-up Marina Silva (15%). And if Lula’s ineligibility stands, his party will hope that any substitute picked from its ranks will benefit from his backing (a different poll says that could happen). In any case, the electoral horse-trading will ensue immediately after the first round, and that means Bolsonaro will have to win over the support of the candidates who did not make the cut, as well as their respective voters. Not every single one of those candidates may support Bolsonaro in the runoff, and those that may could ask for political favors in return under Brazil’s “coalitional presidentialism”, itself a by-product of an overpopulated political party system and how it deprives ruling parties from having solid legislative majorities. Also, according to some analysts, Bolsonaro’s policy proposals and abrasive public persona could scare away moderate voters; for the runoff, that will cost him. Others also raise the possibility of significant electoral abstention, which could also steal invaluable voter support away from Bolsonaro (and all others, of course).

Winter concludes that there is no political consensus within Brazil that could bring about the policies needed to turn things around and, instead, Brazilians are intent on simply tearing down the system. In this sense, many Brazilians see Bolsonaro as a sledgehammer. Stuenkel is more optimistic: the situation stinks but has also spurred Brazilians into action (for example, here). Winter is correct in pointing out that the political class is to blame for what is going on, but after all Rousseau had a big point by stating that political representatives should not deviate from the “general will”. Stuenkel admits that the situation is very hard to remedy, but his optimism makes much sense. Enforcing accountability on the political class, instead of taking the easy way out by electing someone whose outbursts do not jibe with the image of a politically tolerant citizenry, is the most cathartic way to turn things around in Brazil.

In the meantime, this year’s World Cup is about to begin, and Brazil is playing in it. If Neymar and his team manage to win it all, it will be reason enough to throw one hell of a party.

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The Crackdown on Corruption: All Bark but No Bite?

After a long absence due to teaching commitments, I now resume my blogging. During my time offline, the Venezuelan crisis continued to worsen, anti-government protests rocked Nicaragua, Donald Trump ordered Mexico and Canada to renegotiate NAFTA with the US, and Lula da Silva’s fall from grace (or martyrdom, in the view of his supporters) reached its climax, among other news. Indeed, a lot has happened south of America, but teaching Latin American politics and other courses in political science did not allow me to post anything about noteworthy political happenings in the region. Now that my work schedule has cleared up, I can now find time to continue with something I thoroughly enjoy and permits me to share what I know about Latin American politics to the wider public, both inside and outside of academia. That includes posting new material and revising older posts to include updates, clarifications, and corrections.

I look forward to keep myself at it for the foreseeable future.

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Pinch-hitters: Mike Pence shakes hands with the Peruvian Minister of Housing upon Pence’s arrival in Peru for the Eight Summit of the Americas. Source: Official Summit website

The Miami Herald‘s Andrés Oppenheimer opined recently that the Eight Summit of the Americas, held in Peru last month, was not a total failure despite Donald Trump’s decision to not show up so he could – says the White House – closely monitor the air strike against Syria that was carried out at that same time. On the one hand, says Oppenheimer, some leaders were discouraged enough by what he sees as a deliberate snub by President America First to not stay in town long enough to kowtow with stand-in Mike Pence. On the other hand, the snub did not put a stop on efforts to coordinate a response to the still-unfolding unmitigated disaster in Venezuela, although Oppenheimer also says that could have been more successful had Trump decided to attend. Those efforts, hammered out in side meetings held during the event, resulted in a statement signed by the US and 15 other countries demanding the restoration of democracy and vowing to not acknowledge the results of this month’s presidential election, itself widely assumed to end as usual – with the “resounding triumph” of the Bolivarian Revolution over its “terrorist” opponents. Simply put, this Summit was more of a single than a grand slam, but that was a lot better than striking out looking.

There is another silver lining. The previous two encounters, held in 2012 and 2015, were characterized by the fact that the US and Latin America mostly agreed to disagree, so neither one ended with a joint declaration, as it was customary until then. (To be sure, there was agreement on points such as the eradication of HIV/AIDS, but that was not enough to forge an unassailable consensus on matters such as which political and economic institutions – either those that have the American stamp of approval or Hugo Chávez’s – are appropriate for the whole continent.) What was different this time, notwithstanding Oppenheimer’s assertion that there were no major agreements, is that there was a final joint declaration, calling for a crackdown on corruption. Indeed, corruption was adopted as the focus of the Summit’s official agenda at the behest of the host country, even if Oppenheimer (who attended as a panel moderator) points out that the most important talks between leaders were centered on both Venezuela and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

There is a highly justifiable reason for this Summit to devote its attention to the issue of corruption: it is one of the most pressing issues in Latin America, along with the economy and crime. The loud citizen demand for effective action against crooked public officials is not baseless: according to watchdog NGO Transparency International (TI), perceived corruption by public officials is considerably high in most of Latin America. Conversations on that matter ordinarily include usual suspects like Mexico (where old habits from its seven decades of PRI rule refuse to die) or Brazil (especially now because of the Odebrecht scandal), but perhaps surprisingly, none of them had the highest regional perceptions of corruption in TI’s most recent index. That disreputable distinction fell onto Venezuela, which also has the highest perceptions of corruption in the hemisphere. Only in two countries, Chile and Uruguay, was perceived corruption lower than the regional average.

Why corruption in the public sector, whether perceived or actual, is a problem can be summarized by two general points: first, when some public official lines up either his/her pockets or those of some crony with the people’s money, it is a misuse of funds that should instead be invested in the welfare of citizens; and second, because laws and regulations are always violated when it happens, corruption contradicts the rule of law. Latin America’s corruption problem encompasses both points, as well as a third one: corruption is a misuse of the power emanating from the electoral mandate to formulate and enact policies that increase citizen welfare. The consequences of that point for the future of Latin American democracy are foreboding: according to the 2017 version of the Latinobarómetro public opinion poll, Latin Americans are convinced that their governments have fallen to corruption, contributing to government approval ratings currently set at a dismal 36%. And if government performance is what Latin Americans have in mind when evaluating their democracies (as Latinobarómetro has concluded in the past), the gradual drop in their support for them (from 61% in 2010 to 53% now) and the equally steady increase in the percentage of those who cannot care any less if they live under a democracy or not (from 16 to 25% in the same period) should come as no surprise, either.

It bears noting that corruption has not gone by uncontested. Latin American governments – or rather, government officials with enough moral fortitude – have done something. That is why the Brazilian federal judge overseeing the Odebrecht case, Sergio Moro, became a hero to many of his countrymen (although we can countenance mistakes on his part). That is how Guatemalan attorney general Thelma Aldana, credited with indicting her own president and vice-president on graft charges back in 2015, earned her reputation as an implacable enemy of impunity. That is why the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG in Spanish), which blew the lid off from that graft scheme, is said to have the support of 70% of Guatemalans. And that is also why it comes across as enormously ironic that the president of the host country of a Summit of the Americas dedicated to the issue of corruption had to resign because he got splattered with Odebrecht’s muck (though that is still yet to be proven conclusively).

Certainly, TI acknowledges that steps have been taken against corruption in Latin America. Sadly, however, Latin Americans do not perceive any progress as much as they perceive corruption itself because, in TI’s view, what has been done so far does not address the core of the problem, partially reflected in existing campaign finance rules and regulations on government contracts with private providers. Latinobarómetro 2017 is equally sobering: only 32% of respondents have a positive evaluation of their governments’ fight against corruption, and another 35% sees progress in it. Moreover, headwinds are starting to blow hard in some places. In one such case, incumbent Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales, elected on the coattails of a deafening public outcry against corruption, is allegedly poised to get payback for Aldana’s probe into the financing of his campaign, about which she offered new details a day shy of the end of her four-year term. According to The Economist, Morales may force the exit of CICIG’s director (something he tried to do once before being dissuaded by protests) or let its mandate expire, and some say that his pick to replace Aldana will eventually be forced to choose between integrity and impunity. (Morales may be betting on her to choose the latter.)

Back in 1957, in his famous volume An Economic Theory of Democracy, Anthony Downs said that the whole point of running for office was not to carry out a party’s policy agenda, but in part to take advantage of the material perks of office. (The other reason is attaining the social prestige associated with public office.) That was a realistic but regrettable observation, for corruption feeds on politicians with that mindset. When Latinobarómetro examined the issue back in 2013, it found that Latin Americans were behaving like the proverbial ostrich. Now, not only do they fully realize that corruption is a big problem, but also that governments (despite exceptions) are not doing anything categorical about it. It is particularly the latter part what does not bode well for the future of Latin American democracy, whether liberal or radical. Fortunately, according to Latinobarómetro 2017, an overwhelming 87% of Latin Americans would do the right thing and denounce an act of corruption. The least their governments can do on their side is to follow suit, and that requires a political will that is nevertheless not that ironclad. If those governments made a public commitment at the last Summit of the Americas to fight corruption tooth and nail, then it is imperative that they do put the money where their mouths are. Otherwise, that commitment will be exposed as a hollow one. And Latin Americans are not in the mood to let it slide.

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Random Thought

Just like the US had the Indian Wars, Argentina had at that same time something that became known as the “Conquest of the Desert”, which involved the seizure of the Patagonia and the pacification (through overwhelming military force, of course) of the native peoples that inhabited it.

In 1971, Argentine comedy troupe Les Luthiers performed a parody entitled “Los noticiarios cinematográficos” (I roughly translate it to “The Newsreel Suite”), which ended with this “sequence” (here, my translation):

CELEBRATION AND PARADE

Under a radiant, sunny day, the citizenry celebrated a new anniversary of the Conquest of the Desert. A parade of airmen, sailors, and soldiers marks the high point of the celebration with the gallant march of our youth in uniform for the defense of our sovereignty.

Closing the parade is a group of descendants of those brave indians that populated the Patagonian lands by the time of the advent of civilization and progress. They are escorted by a troop of mounted police, four assault vehicles, and border guards with dogs and tear gas guns.

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Götterdämerung to the Tune of a Bossa Nova (II): Lula Returns to the Slammer

Luis Inacio “Lula” Da Silva attending the inauguration of the new leadership of the Brazilian Workers’ Party on July 5, 2017. Dilma Rousseff sits next to him. Photo credit: Associated Press. Source: MSN

The Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) anti-corruption probe might have fried its biggest fish yet: Luiz Inácio “Lula” Da Silva. In a judicial bombshell, the former Brazilian president has been found guilty of accepting $1.2 million in kickbacks and sentenced to almost 10 years in prison. An appeals court must now either uphold or reverse the verdict, a process that can take months; in the meantime, Lula is still a free man. If he does end up in the slammer after the appeals process concludes, it would not be the first time: in 1980, Lula was jailed for leading a metalworkers’ strike that the Brazilian government, led back then by the military, declared illegal.

Lula’s side sees the ruling in question as the result of a political persecution. The chair of the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT), which Lula co-founded and in which he currently serves as honorary president, said that it was all to sideline him from next year’s presidential election (indeed, if the ruling is upheld by the appeals court, he will be barred from running). One of the defense lawyers declared shortly after the verdict was announced that Lula was a victim of “lawfare”, or the cherry-picked use and deliberate abuse of judicial procedures against political opponents, adding that there was no evidence to sustain the conviction besides speculation and a probably fraudulent testimony by a co-defendant. Impeached president Dilma Rousseff called the ruling “a judicial absurd” and the leader of the PT caucus in the Brazilian Senate called for massive street demonstrations in defense of Lula.

Back in March of last year, I uploaded two posts on my Facebook account about this trial. I stated on the first post that there may be reasonable doubts on the motivations of the prosecutors; in this occasion, Lula’s defense team gave a very credible case along those lines. The defendant himself, though, accepted (although briefly) an appointment as Rousseff’s chief of staff, and in my other post I thought that it was an act of cowardice that gave the impression that there was something to hide, very conveniently, behind the cloak of ministerial immunity. But fortunately enough, and according to Reuters, Lula eventually gave a defiant, fierce, and long defense (five hours worth of testimony) at this trial, indicating that he did something I also said on that FB post he had to do: confronting his accusers head on. On my first post, I stated that a guilty verdict would be the downfall of a “human success story”, provided that the accusation held water. The case presented by Lula’s defense team in regard to a conviction without hard evidence to sustain it is disturbing enough to entertain the possibility that the prosecution did not play by the rules (see also this post), but the case for this being a political hit job is, at this point, just as speculative. Simply put, who would benefit from Lula being barred from the presidential race? The presiding judge, Sergio Moro, who denies being driven by political motivations? Acting president Michel Temer, fearing that the PT is out for his head after pushing Rousseff out of the president’s seat? The Globo media group, which is accused of mudslinging Lula to no end? The US, which to this date still has as Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs a holdover from the Obama administration that Donald Trump may possibly substitute for someone else? To whom or what is the smoking gun pointing to?

That brings us to another point. In an op-ed for the daily Folha de São Paulo published the following October (translated here), Lula gave his explanation for what is behind all this legal brew-ha-ha:

 I try to understand this (witch)hunt as part of the political dispute, although it is a repugnant method of struggle. It’s not Lula they wish to condemn: it’s the political project that I represent, along with millions of Brazilians.

I talked already about the political project he represents, but a few parts of that blog post will be restated and expanded upon because of their direct relevance to this turn of events in the Twilight of the Brazilian Gods. In the op-ed, he calls his political project “a fairer Brazil, with opportunities for all.” Deep down, it is a social-democratic project. There is nothing wrong with social democracy in principle, but its ancillary social expenditures are so significant that they can become unaffordable on the long term without a humming economy. Fortunately for him, Lula was able to deliver millions of Brazilians out of poverty by taking advantage of the deluge of profits coming from Brazil’s share of the Latin American commodity boom of the early 2000s, itself a case study in a mainstay of classic liberal economic theory: Ricardian comparative advantage. In that sense, Lula’s political project could not have been implemented at a better time (and was also sustained by the fiscally disciplined policies of his predecessor, former dependency theorist Fernando Henrique Cardoso). Moreover, unlike Hugo Chávez, Lula did not deliver any diatribes against “the rancid oligarchy”, as he may have done in his younger years as labor leader. As a matter of fact, in the same way that it happened to some of Latin America’s new left parties, the trauma of military rule served to moderate the PT – and Lula himself – very significantly: briefly put, social and economic welfare would now be espoused through liberal-democratic procedures and would not entail open struggle or the end of market economics. The epitome of this transformation was Lula’s very own “Letter to the Brazilian People”, which he made public after winning his first presidential election to calm down markets by promising that the new government would continue to honor its foreign debt obligations, including those with that pillar of neoliberalism – the International Monetary Fund. In all, because Lula never meant to take Brazil far from the same neoliberalism that creates the inequality of opportunity he begrudges, his political project is seen by some as insufficiently transformative. Nevertheless, this project is what Lula and his supporters believe is being shunned from the upcoming presidential election by the guilty verdict he was served. How this harmlessly reformist project became as progressive, radical, and revolutionary as chavismo is not clear.

Assuming that Lula is correct and the political hit job in question consists in suppressing progressivism for the sake of oligarchic interests, it stands to reason that he is no Chávez (and certainly no Maduro), so the Brazilian oligarchy may well be overreacting. Besides, whatever gains were made at the Brazilian stock market the moment Lula was found guilty (reportedly, session highs) can be easily wiped out by what a political scientist with the Getulio Vargas Foundation – a top Brazilian university and think-tank – described to Reuters as “a situation of extreme political tension” the country just entered into, which includes a presidential race so widely open that a real political outsider may win it all, given that other contenders from Brazil’s fragmented partisan mainstream are implicated in corruption scandals. Instability and unpredictability are never good for business, so someone or something may have shot himself, herself, or itself in the foot by hauling Lula to jail.

To be continued, no doubt.

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“La moral empieza en casa”

(Translation: “Morality starts at home”)


Delcy Rodríguez, Venezuelan foreign minister. Photo Credit: Israel Leal/AP. Source: Miami Herald

As the 47th General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) met in the Mexican resort town of Cancún and discussed and discussed (and eventually did not agree on) how to deal with Venezuela’s current political crisis, a verbal shoving match occurred at the lobby of a hotel close to where the OAS met. In one corner was Samuel Moncada, the Venezuelan ambassador to the OAS (like Brexit, what we can now call “Venexit” will take a while to complete, so Venezuela is still technically an OAS member). In the other was Gustavo Tovar, a Venezuelan human rights activist. The climactic moment of the exchange was when Moncada shouted to Tovar that he sold out to the US and Tovar riposted by throwing a Venezuelan bill to Moncada, telling him to accept his alms and calling him “killer”. Needless to say, it all went viral.

Fireworks also went off inside the meeting room, when Venezuelan foreign minister Delcy Rodríguez had this to say before collecting her stuff and storming out:

I call upon those who remain in this organization to remember that they have to take care of the durability of their own institutions if they don’t want the same thing that happened to Venezuela to happen to them.

Coming from the top diplomat of chavismo, the statement is basically a sarcastic snipe at countries who (rightfully) criticize Venezuela. As I said before, immunity from international criticism has always been a foreign policy objective for Venezuela. But looked at closely, Rodríguez’s statement has a kernel of truth, because the current regional effort to chastise Venezuela is led by none other than Mexico. And there is indeed a problem with that.

When Mexican foreign minister Luis Videgaray declared last month that Venezuela no longer had a “functional democracy”, Rodríguez reacted with a move that otherwise would make Donald Trump proud: she tweeted.

(Translation: It is unfortunate that the government of Mexico attacks Latin American peoples and violates the human rights of its own people gravely and massively.)

The charge of aggression is debatable and perhaps laughable, but one can legitimately ask why Mexico, of all countries, should have led the effort to hold Venezuela accountable while having so many skeletons in its closet. Such behavior is not really new: Back in 1975, when the Spanish dictatorship led by Francisco Franco executed five radicals found guilty of terrorism, Mexican ambassador to the United Nations (and former president) Luis Echeverría called for the expulsion of Spain from that body without him actually saying anything about the October 1968 student massacre in the Tlatelolco section of Mexico City, in which the national government he was part of (as Interior Secretary) was implicated. Foreign Minister Rodríguez herself has focused on the (still unsolved) disappearance of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa, but a case against Mexico’s human rights record can also be made from hard facts collected by NGOs that are currently well out of favor with the Venezuelan government for being too judgmental on it, like Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, or Amnesty International. The rap sheet is long: corruption, electoral irregularities, collusion with drug cartels, tortures, extrajudicial killings, and even spyware attacks that would get two thumbs up from Vladimir Putin. Consequently, as far as functional democracies go, Mexican democracy is not that functional (and no, this is not the first time I talk about that).

Yet Rodríguez’s statement was not the proverbial mike-dropping moment, as domestic and global rooters of chavismo would like us to believe. Not when that statement has the implicit assertion that Venezuela has the sovereign right to tank the economy and force millions of people to queues longer than Maduro’s radio show, as if no one in this era of globalized news would care. Not while pretending to be constantly let off the hook for questionable human rights practices at the same time it wags fingers to other countries for the same reason, as in this tweet:

(It should be obvious at this point that Venezuela considers this kind of talk an act of “aggression” when it is directed against it.)

Also, it is very hilarious to read about Rodríguez accusing Mexico of being a lackey of the US or Moncada saying that human rights activists sold out to the US since, interestingly, the US is Venezuela’s top trading partner. In 2015, the US made up for 24.5% of all Venezuelan exports and 24% of all its imports, while China came in a relatively distant second on both areas (14.1% and 18.3% respectively), bad neighbor Colombia is the third-largest export market (10.8%), and Cuba represented less than 5% of all exports; and in 2016, Venezuela had a goods trade surplus and a service trade deficit with the US. Relying so much on US services (ex. travel and IT) and making a profit out of American demand for goods like oil ($10 billion worth in US imports in 2016) does not fit with the anti-American rhetoric of chavismo, but that is evidently beside the point for Maduro and company (remember that anti-Americanism in Latin America is not as straightforward as anyone might think). Mexico trades more with the US by a country mile (more than 80% of its exports went to the US in 2015), but Venezuela’s nagging of other countries for their links with the US while not being honest about its own is as dumb a move as Mexico’s rather disingenuous criticism of Venezuela. And given that the Trump “administration” has no lost love for Mexico because of NAFTA and immigration (still remember the border wall?), I wonder if Rodríguez and Moncada really knew what they were saying. (Besides, Venezuela might have had, ironically, an unlikely and unacknowledged ally in the US this time around.)

The bottom line is that a much stronger case can be made by either side from a position of walking the walk and not just talking the talk, and walking the walk will take a process of sincere soul-searching that neither government is currently willing to do out of pride. Mexico is no paradise, but neither is Venezuela.

Two wrongs never make a right.

Note: At the time of posting, Samuel Moncada took over for Delcy Rodríguez as Venezuela’s foreign minister.

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