The Rio 2016 games will be a disaster for Brazil, and so was the World Cup

Despite majorf43342b886d89f64b6d92581c183775c concerns heading into the tournament, most observers concluded that, apart from the 7-1 semifinal disaster against Germany, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil proved to be a success. At least in the sense that the games all started on time, and the visitors and media were able to make it all the games without incident. Nevertheless, much like the Brazilian national team’s by the skin of their teeth journey to the semifinals of that tournament, the relative success of the World Cup and the fact that, in the end, Brazil will likely pull of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games smoothly, has masked serious problems with the way Brazil had prepared for the two mega-events. And even if it doesn’t end with a spectacular collapse like defeat to Germany, even if the games come off well for those that compete and attend them, they, like the World Cup, will be a disaster on par with the 7-1 loss.

The important starting point when judging mega-events like the World Cup or Olympics is that they are always a massive waste of money. The general economic consensus indicates that whatever benefit a city or country gets from the event is massively outweighed by the costs of preparing for it. This is particularly acute with the Olympics, where it’s necessary to have venues available for sports that might not even be popular in the country hosting the games (i.e. baseball stadiums in Greece). The one argument in favor of hosting a World Cup or Olympics in spite of this fact is that, while the event is not worth the money in strict monetary terms, hosting a prestige event that will draw in lots of foreigners can help cities overcome bottlenecks to push through necessary infrastructure projects that might otherwise get bogged down. Accordingly, while it might be a waste to build that giant new soccer stadium, at least you’ll finally be able to overcome the NIMBYs and get that new public transit line built.

To a certain degree, this is what happened
with the 2012 London Olympics. It served as a catalyst to redevelop an underdeveloped part of east London more quickly than would have happened otherwise. It’s still unclear how beneficial this actually was compared to the baseline, but it’s not a ridiculous idea on its face. With its diffuse geographic nature, the benefits of the World Cup were never going to be easy to parse, but in a soccer-mad country like Brazil, having a handful of new or renovated stadiums around the country didn’t seem like totally ridiculous waste of money, especially since whatever money the Brazilian government spent was supposed to be spent on infrastructure improvements and not on the stadiums themselves. The Rio games, on the other hand, were billed as a catalyst for a massive improvement opportunity for the city.

Juliana Barbassa’s fantastic new book, Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink casts into relief Rio’s failure, and Brazil’s failure in general, to achieve even this modicum of success. Written in the first person and full of personal reflections about her relationship with the city of her childhood upon moving back as an adult, Dancing with the Devil’s reporting focuses on the changes occurring in Rio beginning around the time Brazil won both the World Cup and Olympic Games. Throughout the book, Barbassa draws the reader back to the failures in governance that force huge portions of the population to live in the crossfire of gang and police violence, often at risk of losing their homes, while raw sewage runs through the streets of their neighborhoods.

Much of the early part of the book focuses on Rio’s sprawling favelas, within which live SOME percent of the city’s 12 million residents. The most affecting part of the book deals with the invasion of Vila Cruzeiro, a favela in the northern part of the city which served, along with the neighboring Compleixo do Alemão, as a locus for the most violent criminal gangs in Rio. The gangs inside the favela were so well fortified and so well armed, that the Brazilian Navy had to be brought in to provide support to the police. Barbassa details the harrowing military operation that eventually brought both Vila Cruzeiro and the Compleixo do Alemão under police control under the mandate of the Pacifying Police Units (Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora, UPP). This was treated as a major triumph by the police and government in Rio, but, in Barbassa’s words, it was reminiscent of “George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech in 2003, when he made an action figure landing aboard an aircraft carrier and declared” victory.

While the reduction in violence, in and of itself, represented a dramatic improvement in the quality of life for the favela dwellers, the improvement of government services was halting and uneven. While the Compleixo do Alemão was supposed to be administered by the specially-trained UPP officers, a lack of trained officers meant that the military remained for several years instead. The same issues of police violence and drug trafficking, with it associated criminal violence remained, although diminished and changed. Recently, it bubbled back to the surface as a national issue when Rio police were caught on video committing what were, in effect, executions. In early October, Mac Margolis wrote about how the extra-official slayings threaten the real gains achieved in the pacified zones. He cited the fact that there are not enough trained UPP officers to work all of the necessary posts, leaving them to other officers more accustomed to the Brazilian police forces’ “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality summed up so well in the common Brazilian phrase bandido bon é bandido morto (a good criminal is a dead criminal). In fact, despite the high expectations generated by the UPPs, the murder rate in Brazil has actually risen in recent years, focused heavily on the country’s poorest urban residents.

Later on, Barbassa travels to find the source of the Rio Carioca, whose name gives the residents of Rio their demonym. Until the 20th Century, the river was the main water source for the city, but as Barbassa describes, is now more easily identified with one’s nose than one’s eyes. The section running through the heart of the city is mostly paved over, and where it’s exposed, has concrete banks. As such, Cariocas “could be forgiven for assuming that his gray, dead discharge is part of the wastewater treatment system, and not the stream born less than three miles away at the feet of Cristo, among granite boulders and lush forests.” Of course, upon arriving at its source, where there “was something that looked and smelled like a mountain creek,” Barbassa hardly has to look more than a few hundred feet to see “PVC tubing snaked down the hillsides, each contributing one home’s worth of waste to the stream.”

However, it is not not just the poor, lacking any other option, who end up just dumping their waste into whatever waterway will take it away from their homes. In the rapidly developing western part of the city, where much of the Olympic infrastructure is under construction, newly built apartment complexes catering to upper middle and upper class Cariocas, often dispatch their wastewater directly into the marshes nearby. Unlike favela dwellers, these apartments don’t dispatch their wastewater wherever they can because they lack other options. Rather, it is easier and cheaper for developers to build pipes that dump into nearby waterways than to get them linked into the sewage system. And since no one stops them or punishes them if they don’t, there is little downside relative to the cost savings. In a telling anecdote, while accompanying researchers studying the caimans that inhabit that region, Barbassa learns from one of the researchers that they face more danger from sewage-borne diseases in the water than from the caimans themselves.

When Rio won the games in 2010, two important tenets of the preparations were going to be integrating the favelas into the urban fabric of the city, and cleaning up the polluted waterways in and around the city. Integration included linking the favelas to public services like the power grid, water and sewage systems, but also helping link favela dwellers to jobs through improvements to the public transportation system. Virtually none of this has happened. The choice to put the main venues where they did, away from the city center in the suburban frontier, meant that the infrastructure improvements were geared toward the residents middle and upper class residents of that part of the city, meaning highways. Transportation within the city center has barely improved–the World Cup was supposed to contribute to this as well–and new highways do little to link the urban poor to the new growth center miles away. There were some plans drafted to integrate the favelas into Rio’s public service network, many of which were praised by urban design experts for their forward thinking. However, Barbassa details how most of these were quietly tabled, and in a disturbing number of cases, residents were instead informed that their communities would be destroyed.

In the end, little was done to integrate the favelas into the rest of the urban fabric. The omnipresent smell of human feces Barbassa describes in her visits to those communities remains. So does the threat that in bad weather, whatever makeshift sewage system does exist will be overwhelmed and people will find their homes flooded with sewage. The upshot of this is that the water pollution in Rio remains as bad as ever. A report by the AP in July, based on a study they commissioned, showed that the water in the areas of the city designated for various outdoor water events, such as long distance swimming and sailing, was so polluted with fecal coliforms and other bacteria that it poses a serious health risk to the athletes, including in the water just off Rio’s famous Copacabana Beach. Despite this, just a couple of weeks ago, the organizers of Rio 2016 announced that there will not be any testing of the waters at the Games. A breathtaking decision to simply ignore the problem.

The Olympics, even with the extra attention from the World Cup, was never going to be enough impetus to fix all the problems affecting urban Brazil. However, from the beginning, Brazilian politicians talked about the positive legacy the events would have for the country. The World Cup came off despite the concerns in no small part because of Brazilians’ ability to improvise and make due with adverse situations (a skill called jetiinho in Brazil), and it’s not ridiculous to imagine a similar thing occurring next summer with the Olympics. However, simply pulling off the events without embarrassing the country cannot be the point. When Brazil won both events in quick succession at the end of the last decade, President Lula declared that, “All those people who thought we had no ability to govern this country will now learn that we can host the Olympics.”

The World Cup and Olympics were supposed to leave a legacy long after the athletes went home and the cameras were turned off. And yet, sixteen months after the end of the World Cup, and ten months out from the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, and it’s difficult to see how that legacy will be a positive one. Crime may have been contained such that tourists in the country for a few weeks wouldn’t perceive it as an issue. Yet, just miles away, police and drug traffickers wage open war in the favelas, with police summarily killing “criminals” and the traffickers committing heinous acts of retribution. Brazil’s government may be capable of ensuring that all the venues are completed on time, but at the cost of spending money meant for public works projects like infrastructure improvements, such cleaning up the filthy waters around Rio de Janeiro. Brazil will remain a country without adequate infrastructure, with one of the highest murder rates in the world, where a significant portion of the residents of its richest cities have raw sewage running through their neighborhoods and whose children are constantly at risk of being struck by a stray bullet.

Brazil may succeed in pulling off the Olympics as well as it did the World Cup; sufficient so that everyone could get to the games on time and without incident. But Brazil’s Olympics will still be a disaster, just like the World Cup was. Because if you can’t point to anything useful the games helped facilitate, it becomes impossible to even justify them as a means to an end; breaking down obstacles impeding necessary improvements. Instead, Brazil is left having spent billions of dollars building stadiums–despite pledges not to spend public money on them–while millions of people living in its biggest, richest cities still live without access to basic services and the rich and poor alike flush their toilets straight into the water they live along. Brazil’s World Cup and Olympics didn’t just cost the money they spent building the venues, it also cost all the money that could have been spent improving the lives of Brazilians instead.

No matter how nice the games look on TV, they have been an unmitigated disaster.

#hotLatinAmericatakes from a busy weekend

It was a busy weekend in Latin America and I have a few quick takes on some of the biggest things that happened.

  1. Last week, as poll after poll showed Daniel Scioli, the presidential candidate for Argentina’s ruling Frente para la Victoria (FPV, Victory Front) coalition within striking distance of winning the 40 percent plus a ten percent margin of victory necessary for a first round victory, I wondered on Twitter what structural factors would be required for a Peronist candidate to not be favored in a nationwide election. Essentially, if 30 percent inflation, rising unemployment and poverty and stagnant growth weren’t enough to prevent the FPV from coasting to victory, what would be? To some degree, Sunday’s results, with Scioli winning less than 37 percent of the vote with only a 2.5 percent margin over his closest competitor, Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri of the center-right PRO party, indicated that the built-in pro-Peronist margin isn’t nearly as significant as the polls seemed to indicated.

    Of course, all of this needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Scioli is still very likely to win, for reasons both above board and not. For one, the Peronist advantage is still significant, and third place finisher, dissident Peronist Sergio Massa’s 22 percent of the electorate is likely to break more than 50 percent toward Scioli, meaning Marcri would need to dominate the swing voters from the other first round candidates to overcome that margin. Additionally, Scioli, who is the outgoing governor, will probably improve his position in the massive province of Buenos Aires in the second round. In the first round, he was probably pulled down a bit by the FPV candidate for governor, Aníbal Fernández, who is among the most unpopular politicians in the country. Fernández lost to PRO candidate María Eugenia Vidal, taking the governorship out of Peronist hands for the first time in 30 years. Without Fernández’s toxic brand on the ballot, Scioli will improve his position at least slightly, pushing his margin even closer to 50 percent. Beyond that, Scioli will benefit from Cristina Kirchner’s willingness to use the full resources of the state to push his candidacy. If she was willing to use a cadena nacional to transparently campaign for her sister-in-law’s gubernatorial campaign in Santa Cruz, there is little reason to imagine that Scioli won’t benefit from a similar treatment.

  2. In Venezuela, Franklin Nieves, one of the prosecutors who led the trial against Leopoldo López that culiminated in a nearly 14 year prison sentence, has fled Venezuela and, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, denounced the entire proceeding as a sham trial, claiming he was pressured by his superiors. To anyone even vaguely aware of the case, this was obvious from the start. López was convicted of using subliminal messages to incite his followers to commit acts of violence during nationwide protests in February, 2014. Beyond the laughably ridiculous charges, López was not allowed to present evidence in his favor or even call witnesses. Moreover, one of the key prosecution witnesses, a linguist who was supposed to “prove” how his speech calling for peaceful protest actually was inciting violence, testified that was not the case.

    The upshot of this is that it casts into further relief what most anyone paying attention to Venezuela already knew; the Venezuelan judiciary is subservient to the executive and Leopoldo López is a political prisoner convicted in a show trial. That said, it is unlikely to change anything on the ground in Venezuela. The Venezuelan government has already branded Nieves as under the influence of “foreign factors” and it’s unlikely anyone who didn’t already know the López trial was a sham suddenly cares about that more than the economic crisis currently afflicting the country. The more likely effect of this is that it will continue to erode Venezuela’s support abroad. Every time someone from within the government flees the country and confirms the worst things about what’s going on, it becomes harder for Venezuela’s democratic enablers like Brazil to continue backing them and covering for them in organizations like the OAS and Unasur.

  3. For their story on Guatemala’s presidential runoff on Sunday, The Washington Post has a suitably click-baity headline: “The ‘Donald Trump of Guatemala’ was just elected president”. This isn’t the worst thing you’ll see on Latin America in a US newspaper, but it’s incredibly facile. Jimmy Morales shares some superficial similarities to Trump; a celebrity-cum-politician who has never been elected to office and represents an anti-establishment option. However, while Trump has run on a platform that focus on white resentment politics (anti-immigrant, pro-welfare state for the “right” people, nationalist economic policy), Morales’s appeal comes from his anti-corruption platform and an appeal among Guatemala’s indigenous majority. He certainly has his red flags, especially since the party he represents is closely linked with military officers who fought in Guatemala’s long and bloody civil war, which is considered by many experts to have been a genocide. What he is not is a Donald Trump-like figure and it’s annoying that they’d misrepresent him so badly simply for the “Donald Trump” clicks.

It’s all about the #TROPHIEZ

Lionel_Messi_in_tears_after_the_finalOn Saturday, Argentina lost to Chile in the final of the Copa América on penalties. It extended Argentina’s title drought since its 1993 Copa América win to 23 years and, after a relatively pedestrian performance, brought to the fore the question of Lionel Messi’s legacy among the very greatest players of all time. Shaka Hislop of ESPN is among those who have been very vocal that Messi can’t be considered the greatest player of all time unless he wins a World Cup. This isn’t an uncommon position, analogous to the #RINGZ criteria many fans in the US judge NBA stars and quarterbacks–actually, lets be real, it’s basically just for Peyton Manning–with a slightly less stringent version requiring only a title in a major international competition like the Copa América. I’m not going to argue about whether Messi is, or is not the greatest player of all time (though there is a strong statistical argument that he is). Instead, I am going to look at a few key plays in last year’s World Cup final to demonstrate why Hislop’s logic is terrible.

Specifically, there are three key plays in the game that, had any one of them gone differently, would have dramatically altered the course of the game in Argentina’s favor.

The first play happened early in the game. In the 21st minute, a German player misplays a header and ends up sending Gonzalo Higuaín through one-on-one versus Manuel Neuer. Higuaín, feeling pressure from behind, rushes his shot and misses the goal completely.

The second happened in the 97th minute. A ball gets played into the box and is misjudged by the German centerback, falling right to Rodrigo Palacio. Perhaps surprised to have the ball fall to him, Palacio has a bad first touch and is forced to try to loop it over a charging Neuer, missing wide to the left.

The final is the eventual game winner for Germany in the 112th minute. Martín Demichelis gets caught ball watching and loses his maker–Mario Götze–who sneaks into the space behind him to receive the cross before impressively volleying in the goal.

Interestingly enough, none of these plays involved Messi, even indirectly. Yet, if Higuaín doesn’t rush his shot, or Palacio gets a good first touch or Demichelis doesn’t lose track of his man, Argentina may well have won the World Cup, and in the eyes of many, the final box for Messi to be the greatest of all time gets checked.

I think this illustrates just how arbitrary this qualification is. Messi could have played the exact same match, but if one of his teammates makes a better play at some point during the match, he goes from being “one of the best of all time” to “the greatest of all time” without having actually done anything differently himself.

Messi may or may not be the greatest player of all time. But defining whether he is or not shouldn’t hinge on whether or not Gonzalo Higuaín can hit the goal from 12 yards out. It should depend on the cumulative body of work he’s put together over the course of hundreds of games played for both his club and country. Or, you know, Higuaín from 12 yards out:

Un “Hail Mary” criollo

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On Monday, the head of the Consejo Nacional Electoral in Venezuela, Tibisay Lucena, finally announced that December 6th as the date for this year’s parliamentary election after months of delays. While the CNE delayed its announcement over the past few months, many of the rumors that sprung up had implied that the election would occur much earlier than that–September of October being the most commonly speculated–and as such, the later date has inspired a new round of speculation. Most obviously, December 6th is the same date that Hugo Chávez was elected way back in 1998. This will certainly be a point of emphasis in the chavista campaign as it tries to overcome what is likely to still be an economy in crisis (a music video campaign ad for PSUV released this week prominently features Daniela Cabello–the daughter of Diosdado–and mentions Chávez repeatedly without a single reference of any sort to Nicolás Maduro).

While I think the symbolism of the date is important, and definitely not a coincidence, the more important factor is that the date is about as far back as they could reasonably push it back while still promising an election this year and this illustrates an important tension for the government. On the one hand, barring some sort of miracle, PSUV seems bound to lose any passably fair election by a landslide, thereby losing control of the National Assembly, which could actually become a real check on executive power. So the government has every incentive to not risk an election. On the other hand, chavismo, for all its obviously authoritarian behaviors, still tries to maintain the veneer of being a democracy. This has allowed the region’s leaders to ignore many of the worst abuses in the country (and even to make excuses for them). When the government won every election, this wasn’t an issue. Chavez could always claim electoral legitimacy, even as he decimated the country’s democratic institutions, and that was sufficient for a region that’s never been big on institutions anyway. Skipping an election altogether is something brazen enough that countries like Brazil and Chile would no longer be able to turn a blind eye to the democratic breakdown, yet winning an election is nearly impossible without the kind of massive fraud that would bring a similar opprobrium on the government.

Pushing the elections back is essentially a Hail Mary play for the government. They know they have to have an election this year, or they might start facing external pressure from governments they can’t easily label as fascist. But they also know they can’t win an election this year the way things are going. So the fallback plan is to push the elections as far into the future as possible and hope to raise enough money to inject into the economy to at least slow the economy’s contraction, all while hoping that oil prices recover. This, combined with what will likely be more blatant violations of election laws and quite a bit of voter intimidation as well as outright fraud might be enough to keep the election close enough that the gerrymandering that gives chavista areas more representation will keep the election close enough to maintain a majority.

Is this likely to work? Probably not.

Venezuela’s options for raising money at this point are very limited. While the Chinese did recently sign an agreement for $5 billion in new investments in Venezuela, it appears that there are restrictions on how that money can be used. Moreover, the headline figures announced compared the actual investments often differ dramatically. Beyond that, the government is limited to selling off some refineries and allowing PetroCaibe countries to pay off debts at a discount, but these are all one-off injections that are relatively small compared to the money being hemorrhaged as a consequence the economy’s cornucopia of economic distortions and will make the country’s finances even more dire afterward than they are now. Oil prices could recover, of course. But the general consensus is that prices will remain in the $60-80 range for the next year at least, so it would likely require some sort of supply shock like a war to really push prices up in the next 6 months.

The one saving grace for the government, is that the only body that will be allowed to monitor the elections in any way will be Unasur, which has hardly shown itself willing to criticize even the government’s most blatant democratic violations. This is further buoyed by the fact that they will not be doing a formal election observation mission, but rather an accompaniment, which is confined to the day of the elections and is largely ceremonial. Safe to say, there will be a lot of room for electoral jiggery-pockery. The question is how much will be necessary to tip the scales of the election compared to the amount that will be too much even for Unasur (and especially Brazil).

Like most Hail Mary attempts, this one seems very likely to fail. But when they succeed:

Of course, I’ve heard that October and November are prime impossibly stupid and unrealistic coup plot-discovering season…

Venezuela, the OAS and the planned obsolescence of democracy promotion

As the democratic situation in Venezuela has deteriorated over the past decade and a half, the Organization of American States (OAS), as the premier multilateral organization in the region, has been harshly criticized by many for not doing more to combat chavismo’s assault on the country’s institutions. No doubt, the OAS has failed to play much of a role since the stillborn mesa de diálogo following the 2002 coup that briefly removed Hugo Chávez from power. Critics question why the OAS hasn’t invoked the Inter-American Democratic Charter in response to the clear democratic breakdown that has occurred. The answer is less fecklessness or a tacit approval of chavismo by many in the OAS, rather it is a consequence of the two fundamental flaws that were built into the OAS and the Inter-American system; that the OAS is a multilateral organization that won’t infringe on its member states’ sovereignty, and that the Inter-American democratic system is accessible only by the executive branch.

Fundamentally, multilateral organizations function by member states agreeing to mutually cede a degree of sovereignty in order to facilitate action on a given topic. For various historical reasons, Latin American states are uniquely jealous of their sovereignty, and as such, the institutions that make up the OAS lack any sort of mechanisms to oblige member states to abide by the agreements reached. As long as every member state participates, this isn’t a problem, but it makes the OAS very ineffective in dealing with any situation where there isn’t unanimous agreement by its members. Member states can refuse to live up to its obligations as defined by the treaties that compromise the OAS, without experiencing any major consequences.

This combines with the executive-centric nature of all of the institutions in the Inter-American system save for the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. Partially as a legacy of the traditional executive-led nature of diplomacy, and partially by design, the OAS permanent council and the Inter-American Democratic Charter are all the exclusive domain of the executive. That means, for example, that the Venezuelan congress has no authority petition for a meeting of the Permanent Council over undemocratic actions by Nicolás Maduro and his goverment. Originally, this didn’t matter much, since the democratic breakdowns of the 50s, 60s and 70s almost always started with the overthrow of the executive–usually by the military–before the other democratic institutions were dismantled by the de facto government. In essence, protecting the executive was effectively the same as protecting democracy.

Looking at the successes the OAS has had in dealing with democratic breakdowns, one can clearly see the way these institutions are effective at dealing with threats to democratically-elected executives. When presidents were overthrown, or there were legitimate threats to sitting presidents, the system was reasonably effective. However, when the presdient has been responsible for the breakdown in the democratic system, the OAS has been very slow to respond, if at all. For instance, Alberto Fujimori was able to launch an autogolpe in which he dissolved the congress and judiciary, yet remained a member in good standing of the OAS. It wasn’t until Fujimori was credibly accused of rigging an election that the OAS’ member states forcefully moved to address the situation.

A similar thing is occurring now in Venezuela. The executive branch, first with Chávez and now Maduro, has totally dismembered the democratic institutions, yet the OAS has done virutually nothing. Some member states have made noises expressing concern, but not enough to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter and since only the executive can petition, no one representing Venezuela has been able to force the issue. Because of the premium placed on respecting state sovereignty, the General Secretariat has no authority to punish Venezuela and, for a variety of reasons, no majority of member states exists willing to push the issue.

Alberto Lleras Camargo, the first secretary general is supposed to have remarked that the OAS would be whatever its member states wanted it to be. While each milestone that accompanied the development of the Inter-American democratic system since 1989 featured lofty talk of protecting and nurturing democratic ideals, there was never any impetus to do more than protect sitting presidents while protecting state sovereignty. Chavismo’s descent into outright authoritarianism, in that sense, is not a failure of those entrusted with protect Latin America’s democracy. Instead it is the embodiment of the type of democratic breakdown that the Inter-American was explicitly designed not to prevent. Lleras Camargo had a point, unfortunately.

They’re not rallying around the flag, they’re just standing in line

On Monday, in a bit of a surprise, Barack Obama signed an executive order that labelled Venezuela a an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States” as a legal condition for imposing sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials. Predictably, the Venezuelan government freaked out, calling the actions a grave attack on Venezuela and its sovereignty. Less predictably, many US media outlets ran the story from the perspective that this would provide a boost to president Nicolás Maduro.

A lot of this argument rests on the idea that Venezuelans are likely both to believe that this is an attack on Venezuela and not just officials accused of corruption and human rights abuses and to care. I’m not convinced of either of these things. For one, Maduro has spent most of his presidency, and in particular the last several months, blaming the US for just about everything. In fact, it was not even a month ago that his government “foiled” a US-backed coup, evidence for which he has announced was forthcoming on multiple, fruitless occasions. Maduro has blamed the US so consistently and baselessly for so long, that it’s unlikely that anyone that didn’t already believe him suddenly does just because seven bureaucrats who are either unknown or unloved lost their US visas.

Another argument is that this has strengthened his position by giving him a pretext to request a Ley Habilitante Antiimperialista, which would give him the power to rule by decree for six months. But this sounds like a bigger deal than it really is. Venezuela’s institutions have been hollowed out so much by this point that there are virtually no real checks on the president’s authority to act. More than anything, this is a vestigial impulse to provide a modicum of democratic cover to the government’s authoritarianism. In a country where the president brags on television about his personal role in bringing charges against an opponent and where multiple members of the National Assembly have been summarily stripped of their seats, any Ley Habilitante is just a formality that simply takes the rubber-stamp congress out of the process.

Finally, there is some speculation that this might make other Latin American governments less likely to speak up. This is probably true. However, no major country in Latin America was ever likely to say anything anyway. So, in reality, the choice was between the US acting against Venezuela’s human rights abusers and Latin American countries feeling relieved they had an excuse to not say anything and the US not doing anything, and Latin America countries still finding a reason to not say anything. The strongest reaction in Latin America “against” Venezuela in the past year was Brazil’s foreign ministry, “expressing concern” at the actions of both sides after a Venezuelan police officer shot a 14 year old student in the head and killed him during a protest. That says a lot.

If anything, this move might fire up Maduro’s base. The average Venezuelan, it seems, will probably be making jokes about this while they stand in line hoping to be able to buy toilet paper and milk.

Succeeding on the margin

Last week, Anita Snow, an AP reporter who spent ten years working in Havana, wrote a fantastic piece about returning to Cuba and how things are changing for average Cubans. The entire piece is great and worth reading. What really caught my attention, however, was how the Cubans she quoted spoke about the reforms of the last few years and the possibilities created by the recent rapprochement with the United States. All of them talk about the new economic opportunities open to them and how they think their lives can continue to improve. This stands in contrast to many opponents of the new policy position toward Cuba here in the United States as well as many prominent dissidents, who focus much more heavily on issues of political rights and democratic transition.

This is certainly not to say that those issues aren’t important. Cuba’s status as an open dictatorship with a completely closed political system remains a stain on the Americas, not least because so many prominent democratic politicians openly fawn over Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution. Nevertheless, I think it’s very likely that right now, most Cubans are far more concerned with the potential economic benefits of reform than they are about political ones. Moreover, helping generate a sustained improvement in the material living standards of Cubans is a much more achievable goal from the perspective of US policymakers than a democratic transition. The negative effects of the embargo on Cuba’s economy are probably overblown, but allowing US citizens and companies to travel, work and invest in Cuba will almost certainly be a net benefit for the Cuban economy, improving the livelihoods of Cubans. In contrast, the current arrangement is a net negative for the Cuban economy and Cuban livelihoods, yet also has done nothing to generate a political transition, or even superficial moves.

There a definite value to human rights activists and dissidents in Cuba fighting for a political opening above all else. And in a perfect world, Cuba would be well on its way there. However, treating that as the price of entry for Cuba to have economic and political relations with the United States makes perfect the enemy of good. Cubans end up poorer than they otherwise might be, and still stuck living in an oppressive dictatorship. US policy toward Cuba needs to be geared to improving the lives of Cubans within the current constraints, while working to bring about the eventual political opening.