Kirchner’s Death

It’s been a while since we’ve posted, but today’s sudden death of former-President Nestor Kirchner of Argentina came as quite a shock.  Though controversial in both Washington and in his home country, he will probably remembered as a leader that gave Argentina great hope during a serious crisis.  With that said, I wanted to offer my short analysis on the impact of his death.

Two things: Argentina’s upcoming presidential election and UNASUR.  Many had speculated that Mr. Kirchner was poised to run again for president to replace his wife when her term ends, questioning the Kirchner’s commitment to democracy.  Obviously, his absence as a strong candidate for the post will cause a stir.  Maybe his wife will run for reelection?  Secondly, his death has left UNASUR without a Secretary General.  I think that it is reasonable to surmise that President Lula of Brazil would be a strong contender for the post.  His popularity at home and in the region would allow him to remain in the spotlight after his term ends in a few months.   I’m going to guess that in the coming months we’ll be hearing more talk of a Lula nomination to lead UNASUR.


The Sky Is Falling!! China is # 2!! The Sky Is Falling… but not so much.

Yesterday the New York Times reported that China overtook Japan in the second quarter to become the world’s second largest economy.  There are even predictions that China will surpass the US economy to be the world’s largest in a short twenty years.  When one looks at their amazing reserve of foreign currency, their stockpile of US government debt, the way that they have been gobbling up resources all over Africa, Asia and Latin America it makes me feel a lot better about studying Chinese in college and makes the remake of “Red Dawn” that much more frightening.

With all this going for them though, I would like to throw out some of the many many reasons that I am not worried about China (in its current embodiment at least) rolling over the rest of the world.  So in no particular order here are my reasons:

1) Have you tried to breathe in China before?  The pollution in that country is wretched.  A bit of anecdotal fun is that while studying in Beijing

Lovely Day for a Ride

it was a rare day that I could see the sun through all the haze and smog.  I would return home from walking around for the day and wipe the grime off my face and blow blackness out of my nose.  On a more official level, you can read this World Bank report telling you about how China is facing increasing problems in the health of its citizens, a reduction in production and restrictions on their growth due to pollution.  Much of the north of China gets the double wammy with both air and water pollution.  Throw in some ecological disasters like a massive chemical spill in Harbin, combine that with a health epidemic like… oh I don’t know, SARS and you have a recipe for disaster.  If China does not act quickly, it will choke out its own progress with untold environmental ruin.

2) This sort of goes along with the first one, but China is using up their water supplies at an alarming rate.  Basically the problem is that China is just to big and has too many people.  The country did itself a great service with the one child policy.  Though decried by many on the religious right, it was definitely the smart thing to do in China and has staved off even more urgency when it comes to the rapid depletion of water.  The breakdown goes something like this, China’s north is arid and has much less water, the huge civil projects to get more water to the north have been stopped because of a myriad of really good reasons like earthquake concerns, a huge price tag (three times the price of the Three Gorges Dam) and untold environmental problems down the road.  China’s growing economy calls for more factories and for more power plants, both of which consume a huge amount of water.  After that you have growing populations that have an increased demand for higher quality of living which means using more water for recreation, around the house and most importantly for food.  If China doesn’t get their runaway appetite for water under control and quick the future does not look bright for the Middle Kingdom.

3) My third reason is the political instability of the country.  First off you have all those pesky parts of China that really just don’t think that they are China.

Uighurs being beaten by Chinese military

Everyone knows about Tibet which has seen an increase in civil unrest in the last few years.  Tibet’s population of about 3 million people is kept under constant military rule by thousands of Chinese troops.  China’s answer to the Tibet issue is essentially to encourage “real Chinese” to move to the region in an attempt to breed out the ethnic Tibetans.  You can guess how popular that is.  To the north of Tibet is Xin Jiang which has its own claims of sovereignty that are in kind crushed by the Chinese government with heavy handed military action and attempts to move more “Chinese” into the area.  These two restive provinces have made the news in the last couple of years (at least in the west, but received far less mention in Chinese press where according to CCCTV and Xin Hua news nothing bad ever happens in China, but that is for a different post) but I think that the real issue that China needs to overcome is the growing amount of smaller localized disruptions that are taking place at a record pace throughout the country.  A 2004 story by the Washington post cited 58,000 cases of civil unrest in one year alone… that is 160 a day.  The trend has continued, with a brief lull during the blessed Olympics, and you can find stories like this one from the NY Times pretty much every day. (Workers Let Go by China’s Banks Are Putting Up a Fight).  Growing economic inequality, blatant racism towards ethnic minorities, severe restrictions on civil liberties, all of these issues are causing China’s swelling population to boil over and no one knows when the straw will come that will break the camel’s back. (For an even more disturbing trend that seems to be an offshoot of this, look at the recent wave of disillusioned Chinese attacking school children)

4) China’s recent growth has been far from equal.  Not just kind of undistributed but it has not been anywhere close!  A general rule of thumb that the further you move away from the shore the less and less developed the country becomes (not always true but a general rule of thumb).  Much of China is connected with modern highways and high speed rail systems that are the envy of the western world, but then there are the even greater parts of China where the state hardly exists.  There are still segments of the population that live in China’s geographic boundaries that have no idea or concept of the Chinese state and identity.  We are talking no roads, no electricity, no government services.  Yes Shanghai and Shenzhen may be bumping but it is coming at the price of the poor migrant workers from the west.  To demonstrate just how bad this economic disparity has become, Beijing has recently instituted internment camps for those from the west of the country that have come to the east in search of work.  The migrant laborers live in abject poverty in tiny hovels that are literally in the shadows of the pristine sky scrappers that they go to work to make everyday.  This topic definitely lends into the third topic but I feel warrants a listing of its own.  The ultimate irony of this post is that such large inequality exists in Mao’s communist utopia… not so egalitarian after all.

My closing thoughts are this.  China has a lot going for it, it is a financial juggernaut that cannot be overlooked, its military is growing (though is still far from a threat to anyone but Taiwan, Xin Jiang and Tibet), and the rate that it is catching up technology wise is astounding.  However, it has many glaring areas that it needs to address before it can claim its place as a world leader.  Severe environmental degradation and civil unrest threaten the strong outer image that China has created.  At this point China’s development is like a lot of the small trinkets made there, it may look shiny and impressive on the outside, but scratch the surface and you can see that it is ready to fall apart at any minute.

Exploring New Media’s Role in Conflict: The Case of Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan has witnessed two recent phases of social and political upheaval. I won’t get into the details of these episodes, but here’s the short version: the first phase occurred in April of this year, when President Bakiyev was overthrown in a coup and an interim government put in place. This was followed by ethnic clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and the Uzbek communities in June, 2010. My attempt here is to understand the role that “new media” played in these episodes and their aftermath.

But first, some broader context:

It’s obvious even to the most casual observer that digital communication tools have made fairly fundamental changes in the way that individuals communicate with each other and consume information. With the emergence of mobile phones, social networking sites – what are being called “new media” – there’s also a great deal of interest in figuring out the role that new media are having in violent conflict and political change. From Iran to Kenya, there are good reasons to believe that they have played some role in large socio-political change. But figuring out the precise causal mechanisms of this role is a difficult task.

We are still in early days of this task: the technologies we’re researching, the data we have available, and even the number of cases we have on hand are all only beginning to emerge. But we’re already seeing two groups emerging amongst policy-makers and analysts. On one hand, we have those who believe that new media will play a key role in democratizing repressive regimes and resolving conflicts – the “cyberutopians.” [Read Larry Diamond’s recent article on ‘liberation technology’ (pdf)] The other camp — the “cyberskeptics” –sees regimes gaining an edge over activists for political reform, with the Internet acting as yet another means for surveillance, state repression, and violence. [The poster-child for this perspective is Evgeny Morazov].

As with many things, the truth of the matter is probably somewhere in the middle of the two. But without adding nuance, that statement is a mere platitude. Recent ‘Blogs & Bullets’ research released by the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Center of Innovation for Science, Technology & Peacebuilding, George Washington University, Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and Morningside Analytics attempts to get us a little closer to that kind of nuance. They break down this argument into five levels where new media are having an effect in violent or contentious politics:

  • Individual transformation: how does online discourse affect the behaviour of individuals in violent conflict?
  • Inter-group relations: Do new media help create bonds across communities, or do they worsen inter-communal tensions?
  • Collective action: How do new media help individuals and groups overcome collective action costs to organize and protest?
  • Regime policies: How do repressive/violent regimes react to new media? Do they repress it? Co-opt it?
  • External attention: How do new media draw the attention of international media and political actors to contentious political issues and events in conflict zones?

Without getting too bogged down in explaining each of these factors, I’m going to explore the case of Kyrgyzstan along two of these vectors where new media appear to have had played some important role: inter-group relations and collective action.

Inter-group relations:
It appears that online discussion forums played a large part of the social media sphere in Kyrgyzstan in both April and June. We interviewed Elena Skochilo, a local citizen journalist, about the role of these online forums in mitigating or exacerbating violence between the two communities. It appears that the discussion forums and blogs were used to “spread racial hatred and many topics at the Diesel forum were blocked because of racial discussions. Moreover, Diesel forum were used to spread unjustified information to increase panic mood among the society.”

There were some sporadic instances of more positive discussions online:

“There was a special topic about positive events, like when one Kyrgyz family was hiding the Uzbek family during June events. The users of forum posted many positive stories but it was just a drop in an ocean of total racial discrimination. There were many social clips and projects also but I cannot say that they helped to establish a collaboration between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.”

Of course, this begs the question of whether this kind of vitriol actually led people to perform acts of violence either in April or June. Also consider the counterfactual: would violence have erupted without this online discourse? There’s good reason to think so, but I have found little concrete evidence either way. But regardless, this is hardly an encouraging trend since it succeeds in inflaming an already tense situation, feeding into a frame of longstanding inter-ethnic grievances.

Collective Action
There are more heartening instances, with stronger causal linkages, of the use of new media in coordinating against violence in Krygyzstan. Local police, either due to a lack of capacity or willingness, were unable to prevent the widespread looting in the northern capital of Bishkek in the wake of the April riots. The Diesel forum was used to coordinate and recruit civilian militia groups that protected stores, homes, and people. Further, as Skochilo told us, “There were no such announcements through radio or TV. All recruiting was made through this Internet forum.”

However, there is no evidence to suggest that similar groups emerged during the June riots in the southern city of Osh. Skochilo points: “The reason is that southern part of Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have so much access to the Internet connection as northern part has. It was difficult for people to be organized in that chaos. There wasn’t even electricity to recharge cell phones, how can we talk about recruiting volunteers to be in the civilian militia in this situation?”

Information Vacuum
But it appears that new media in Kyrgyzstan fulfilled a role that conceptually ‘precedes’ the five levels laid out in the Blogs & Bullets research. As we have seen above, in some cases, they have behaved as active causal variables in the turbulent politics of Kyrgyzstan. But they played a larger, albeit more passive, role in those politics by filling in an informational space that was largely a vacuum, especially during events in June. As conventional news media succumbed to increased state control, forums like Diesel became the source of information for those wanting to hear about events on the ground, especially concerned diaspora. But new media filled this vacuum chaotically — rumours and misinformation were rampant, and the hashtag #freekg was overloaded with useless information. Thus, while new media have created new ways to fill information voids, they clearly suffer from a lack of verification that traditional editorial structures ensured.

*In the interest of full disclosure: Unlike my fellow bloggers, I still work with the US Institute of Peace. As with all my other posts, this reflects my opinion, not the Institute’s.

Another Car Bombing in Mexico

CNN has coverage of the latest car bomb that has struck the Mexican border region.  This time the target was public safety complex in Tamaulipas.  No one was hurt but some police vehicles were damaged.

It seems that things are taking a turn as criminal organizations are starting to employ more psychologically shocking tactics.  So far this is the second or possibly third car bombing since Calderón declared war on drug trafficking groups.

Are we to expect more of these as the violence continues to spiral out of control?

A Transforming Threat and New Ideas

The BBC and Boz have some coverage of Mexican President Calderón’s closing words at an anti-crime convention in Mexico City.  The main point of his speech is that drug cartels are transforming themselves and the threat they pose to the state.

“This criminal behaviour has become an activity that not only defies the state but seeks to replace the state.”

Many analysts see their evolution from drug smuggling entities or DTOs to new transnational criminal organizations or networks (TCOs) that operate in more than drug trafficking, including immigrant smuggling, gun running, merchandise and intellectual property piracy, and in Mexico’s case, dealing in stolen energy resources.

Calderón mentioned that these groups are attempting to supplant the state.  Some criminal organizations maintain de facto control of parts of Mexico, providing services that the state or traditional business provide.  In the state of Michocan the La Familia organization offers loans to farmers and business men.  In other more recent news, Mexican criminal organizations, which have typically trafficked drugs, are now stealing the state’s most prized natural resource, oil.  The state controlled Pemex estimates that $3 billion worth of oil was stolen directly from pipelines and wells last year by organized crime groups and sold directly to energy companies in the United States.  Not only is this a direct affront to the state of Mexico but also proves that these groups will invest themselves in other unscrupulous activities.

Calderón is attempting to change the nature of the debate surrounding the threat, moving from criminal activity within the state to something that directly challenges the state.  Matt Pierson and I have discussed in length as to what constitutes an insurgency, but the picture Calderón is painting speaks directly to groups that are openly challenging the state.  I wouldn’t say that this is anything close to an insurgency because of the obvious lack of political or religious motivation on the part of most criminal groups. Criminal organizations are businesses.  They’re motivated by profit, not politics.  What the president is trying to do is to muster support for his continued counterinsurgency-like policy of using the military to shore up security and then finding ways, albeit minimal, to improve the economic and social situation in areas where criminal groups operate and recruit.

Another interesting point that was made this week by President Calderón is the slight chance of opening a “democratic debate” on the topic of legalizing drug use.  Calderón said that he’s open to debate on the subject in light of the upcoming proposition in California legalizing marijuana possession and use.  Though he reiterated his opposition toward legalization, it’s important to take note that a sitting president of a major drug producing country is at least open to the idea of debating legalization in a democratic and pluralistic manner.

These remarks are perhaps the start of a change in tone in both the understanding of the threat posed by criminal groups and ways in which to address such threat.

Adjusting the Numbers, Again.

The Mexican director of national security has revised government estimates of those killed due to drug violence since 2006.  The number was augmented by about 3,000, bringing the current government and accepted number to “a little more than 28,000 murders.”  This isn’t the first time the Mexican government has adjusted these numbers.  In fact, earlier this year the Mexican Attorney General’s office announced that the real figure was closer to 25,000, up from about 22,000 that the media had been tracking.  Prior to announcing the 25,000 toll, the government claimed that it kept no official estimates or tallies.  So far, they’ve revised the numbers twice in the last couple months.

Just earlier this spring politicians and analysts had long subscribed to the media’s casualty count of just around 20,000.  This adjustment comes as disconcerting as it increases the death toll and reveals the fact that the Mexican government may not be as forthcoming when calculating drug-related violence.  I’d like to know more about how drug-related murders are counted.  Are the strictly targeted killings, or do they count innocent bystanders?

Regardless of the total amount of homicides, we do know that the trend is increasing.  Mexico is facing more drug-related violence today than it did some four or five years ago.  Things are getting worse, even when the state captures or kills cartel capos; the violence continues.

History Revisited

This post is not exactly an analysis of elections in a fragile country or news about insurgent leaders being killed or any of the other uplifting and cheery topics that we normally touch on at Carrel Research but I thought you all might enjoy still. 

Thanks goes out to friend of the blog Sergio for introducing me to these awesome photos.  Russian artist Sergey Larenkov takes old war time photos from Russia and super imposes them onto their modern day location with often stunning contrast.  I don’t really speak Russian so I can’t tell you what all the different subtitles are but I think they speak for themselves.  Check it out.


And one more…

For even more of historical photo mash-ups look at his website here.

Wi nou kapab!! But Maybe We Shouldn’t…

Wi Nou Kapab!!  Wi Nou kapab (meaning “yes we can” for all those that don’t speak the Creole or that didn’t just google translate it like myself) may be heard across the island nation of Haiti soon as the AP and BBC have been running stories that pop star Wyclef Jean is considering a run for President in his home land of Haiti.  From what I can see there is a lot of up to this but then there are some pretty glaring reasons for why this might not be such a good idea either.  Lets do the run down.

Why this is an excellent plan:

1) The joke had to be made sooner or later so lets just get it out of the way now “his hips don’t lie” and in a country that has had such a lengthy history of corruption that is an extremely desirable quality.

2) He is already rich and would not be running to line his own pockets or those of his family and friends, this speaks a bit more seriously to the corruption comment made earlier.  In a country that has received billions of dollars of aid over the years and has little to show for it other than some impressive mansions in Europe and Miami and some pretty cool apartments in New York it would be good to have a president that you knew from the beginning was not there to make as much money as possible before getting voted out or getting thrown out.

3) He is an outsider that is already famous and is not beholden to the current political system and the current elite.  He can come in and shake things up without having to worry about paying anyone back for help that he received while climbing the political ladder.  This would allow him to make the tough decisions without needing to make the million compromises that normally go in to the political process.  He already has his political capital and he doesn’t need anyone’s help.

4) He is young and youthful.  This could be seen as a negative (look for it again in the second part of this post) but in a country where half the population is under 21 this will help him relate better to the issues that the rising generation faces and will help him maintain political momentum as more and more youth grow and become old enough to vote.

5) He is a world wide celebrity that will be able to help keep the spotlight on Haiti and keep the help coming in.  He has been a great spokesperson for the country and would be even better if given a louder mic to speak from as President of the country.  In the same way that Liberia has been able to continue its rebound from utter destruction because of the world’s admiration for Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, Jean would be able to bring in the support that the country so desperately needs.

So as you can tell I see some pretty big upsides here.  However, there are of course obvious drawbacks as well.  I initially breezed over these negatives when I heard that he was contemplating running but after a conversation with friend of the blog Ms. Francois, also a Carrel alum and my go to person for all conversations regarding Haiti, I have reassessed the severity of these negatives.

Why we don’t want to “kapab”:

1) He is young.  This means a lot but mostly it just lends itself to a less developed world view and un-preparedness for the severity of the responsibility that would be placed on him if he were to become President of a country, let alone one with the mountain of issues facing Haiti.  Then again, I am pretty young and I think I have a fairly good grasp on the world… but there is not a snowball’s chance in hell I would run for President either.

2) More importantly than the fact that he is young is that he is inexperienced.  He has never held an office, he has never run for an office.  He has been a sort of cultural ambassador for Haiti since 2007 and carries a diplomatic passport but your guess is as good as mine as to how much actual responsibility comes with that.  With the huge amount of work that needs to be done in Haiti, there may not be time for learning on the job… ok there isn’t time for learning on the job at all but maybe what is needed is to throw out the old system and just come up with his own way of doing things?

3) He was born in Haiti but moved to the US when he was only a small child.  Yes he is diaspora and is a citizen but will the initial craze of having the country’s most famous export be drowned out with calls that he is not a “real-haitian” if he does not meet the high level of expectations that will be put on him?  This may not be an issue right now, but it could throw a major wrench in the gears in the future if there are not some immediate results.

4) Will the rest of the world take him seriously.  One word “Governator.”  A punch line that everyone instantly recognizes.  Can he transform his image from the tall fit pop star dancing next to Shakira and Lauryn Hill into a respected world leader that will be taken seriously when he represents his country at the World Bank, UN or donor’s conferences?  Maybe, but it is still something to consider.
All of this is of course a pointless discussion if he doesn’t actually decide to run.  Current events actually make it look more and more likely that he won’t run since his uncle and current Haitian Ambassador to the US Raymond Joseph (someone with actual political experience) announced just two days ago that he will be running for President and Wyclef has expressed previously that he himself did not want to run but that he would support Joseph if he were to run and that he hoped that he would.  I don’t think it would be too hard to imagine Joseph as President, getting elected with Wyclef’s support, and then Wyclef taking a pretty substantial position in his government.  I think that one way or another Wyclef is looking to move into a more meaningful role in Haitian politics, whether or not he goes for the big show right out of the gates we will just have to wait and see.

Death of Insurgent Leader in Paraguay

One last small post before I go to bed…

Reports from BBC Mundo are claiming that Severiano Martínez, a leader of the Paraguay People’s Army (EPP), is confirmed to have been killed in April by government security forces.  The mysterious leftwing insurgency cropped up within the last two years.  Not much is known about the group, though speculations abound to their ties with other regional marxist insurgencies, mostly the FARC in Colombia, drug traffickers and other organized crime.  Others doubt its existence entirely, saying that the EPP is just a collection of criminals and extortionists and not a true insurgency.  Whatever the case may be, the EPP is rather small with less than a hundred men under arms (I’ve seen estimates as low as 10 and high as 60).

It’ll be interesting to see if the Lugo government can continue to contain and eliminate this small insurgency.

Massive (Mexican) Drug Bust in California

The BBC reports on a massive marijuana drug bust in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California estimated at $1.7 billion.  The three-week operation shut down hundreds of cultivation sites and netted about 100 individuals, most of which had ties to Mexican drug trafficking organizations.  I must point out that marijuana is the most profitable illicit product for Mexican DTOs, accounting for roughly more than half of their earnings.  There is a misconception that cocaine or methamphetamines are the real cash cows for these groups.

For several years now Mexican DTOs have moved cultivation and production, typically marijuana and some methamphetamine, into the US for two main reasons: 1) to avoid crossing the border and 2) to compete with growing domestic production.

As to point 1.  This strategy is generally less risky and only requires a few people to maintain and harvest clandestine cultivation sites away from population centers within national forests and parks.  This is another testament to their ingenuity and skill in avoiding law enforcement detection.  As pundits and politicians clamor for a more secure border, Mexican DTOs have responded by circumventing the border entirely.  Strengthening the border without addressing demand reduction at home will fail to curb supply.

And point 2.  Another reason Mexican DTOs are shipping cultivation north is to reduce business costs and maintain a competitive edge over domestic marijuana production.  An insightful Washington Post article from last October describes the fact that foreign supply of marijuana has dramatically fallen in the last four decades, now accounting for just under half of all marijuana consumed domestically.  In other words, the United States has nationalized its marijuana production, both legal and illegal.  As with any business, Mexican DTOs adapted to an evolving business environment.   “Now, to stay competitive, Mexican traffickers are changing their business model to improve their product and streamline delivery.”

I believe that point 1 is more of an immediate driving factor, since Mexican marijuana cultivation has been a rather successful endeavor for more than a century.  It was only until recently when trafficking it across the border became a bothersome activity did DTOs decide to move operations north.  In addition to failing to reduce drug supply, the policy of strengthening the border has effectively imported large-scale illicit production of marijuana.  What is concerning for many is that foreign criminal organizations have moved industrial sized drug production operations to protected lands within the US.  Cultivating, harvesting and processing illicit drugs, especially on this scale, is extremely damaging to the environment.

Congress and those advocating to build higher and stronger fences should also examine the repercussions and externalities associated with such a policy.