If you want to understand Latin America, James Bosworth’s Twitter feed is a very good place to start. The strategic analyst is Crikey’s latest Follow Friday story.
It has already been an eventful year for a Western media dazzled by the Sturm und Drang of protest and revolution. In the first few months of 2014, it has occasionally paid to have monocular vision: protest-watchers have needed one eye for Ukraine and another for Venezuela.
One of the more sober commentators on the latter country is James Bosworth (@bloggingsbyboz), director of analysis at Southern Pulse, a strategic advisory firm that focuses on security, economics and political risk in Latin America. Bosworth, who has been blogging since 2004 and using Twitter since 2009, is one of those rare and wonderful creatures: a commentator who can talk about a deeply polarising country like Venezuela without resorting to histrionics or hyperbole. He summarised the current situation for Crikey.
“Venezuela has some of the highest levels of violent crime in the world and is facing a growing economic crisis that includes shortages and inflation. Those are the problems that are at the base of the protests and will remain for the foreseeable future, even if the current round of protests fizzles out,” he said.
“The government’s repression of the protests, including mass arrests of students, evidence of torture by state security forces and the use of violent pro-government paramilitary groups is taking its toll on President [Nicolas] Maduro’s legitimacy and credibility. Even within the Chavistas, Maduro is seen as mismanaging the current crisis and the broader economic situation of the country. While a majority of the country may have voted for Chavez and Chavismo, they certainly didn’t intend to sign up for Maduro’s brand of incompetency. I think Maduro’s first year failures on multiple fronts are going to haunt him for the rest of his time in office.”
But Bosworth says the media’s coverage of the protests leaves something to be desired. “We saw massive street protests in Brazil last year, which organised and rose up without the need for traditional political parties or social movements,” he said. “The same may be occurring in Venezuela, but it might be difficult to see given the media’s intense focus on a few opposition leaders who have been opportunistic in taking advantage of the current moment.
“Those opposition politicians have grasped on to these protests and the broader discontent with the government as an attempt at relevancy. The Venezuelan government, opposition political leaders and the media all want to frame the protests as Maduro versus [opposition politician] Henrique Capriles or Maduro versus [opposition leader] Leopoldo Lopez or the Chavistas versus the opposition because those are narratives they know and understand. What may be missing in the analysis is the question of what these protests look like if you take those frames away.”
Although he has watched events in Venezuela closely, Bosworth’s work is about far more than what he calls “the story of the moment”. In the past week alone he has blogged about how comparisons between Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Hugo Chavez “are overblown”, the United States Defense Department’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, Argentinean opinion poll numbers and the decision of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to pursue political reforms that would prohibit presidential re-election while extending the term to six years. He has tweeted about Venezuelan poll numbers, Brazil’s position on events in Ukraine, a talk by the Organization of American States’ Jose Miguel Insulza at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and on Costa Rica’s presidential race. His vision is all-encompassing on Latin America: on any given day, he is just as likely to blog about Latin America’s approach to climate change, Brazilian-EU trade deals, El Salvadoran gangs or the Mexican drug war as he is about, say, the Venezuelan protests.
“I’m never sure why I chose Latin America,” he said. “My study abroad experience in Chile and traveling around South America certainly influenced me, and I have many relatives in Argentina. I took every college course I could about Latin American politics and history. About a year after college I found a job with a strategic communications firm focused on Latin America issues and got paid to keep up with current events in the region and write about them for clients, which showed me there actually is a business opportunity in knowing about the region. I’ve occasionally written on issues in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, but I just don’t enjoy working on those regions the way I do Latin America.”
Bosworth and his wife moved to Mexico for her work six months ago, following a three-year stint in Nicaragua. He says the nature of his work is such that he can really do it anywhere.
“With my work at Southern Pulse, and previously as a freelancer, I can work from wherever I have a laptop and an internet connection,” he said. “I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to convert my hobby of writing about Latin America to a full-time job helping run a consulting firm on the issues in the region.”
Although Bosworth claims to be “bad at the social part of social media”, Twitter plays an important role in his news-gathering process.
“Ten years ago, I had to scan lots of Latin American websites to find interesting news,” he said. “While I still do that, I also know that the 400 or so people I follow on Twitter will link to many interesting stories from websites I’m not visiting daily. Through Twitter, news finds me.”
He says while there is “a good mixture” of English-language academics, students and policy-makers paying attention to Latin America on Twitter, the most important tweets about the region are those from its own citizens.
“The best part about citizen-generated media, including Twitter and blogging, is that it has given a voice to Latin American citizens,” he said. “If I want to find out what is going on in Costa Rica’s election, I can go see what Costa Rica’s citizens are writing about on Twitter. Even though there remains a digital divide in most of Latin America, I can still get a wide variety of views from citizens online across the political and economic spectrum. For me, that’s the most important revolution going on in social media, with far greater value than the ranks of Latin American analysts — including myself — who have Twitter accounts.”
Adam Isacson (@adam_wola): an expert on US-Colombia policy and a program associate at the Washington office on Latin America on security issues.
Alejandro Hope (@ahope71): a very smart researcher on drugs and crime in Latin America, particularly Mexico.
Guy Edwards (@GuyEdwards): a researcher at Brown University who focuses on climate change issues in Latin America.
Latin American Science (@LatAmSci): a regular aggregator of news about science issues in the region.
Rio Gringa (@RioGringa): Rachel Glickhouse works at Council of the Americas and is one of the best English-language bloggers on Brazil.
On the media’s coverage of Latin America …
One of the rules for my blog is that I’m not allowed to complain, “Why aren’t the media covering …?” I have a media platform through my blog and through Twitter. If I think something should be covered more, then I should cover it, not complain that others aren’t doing so.
Mexico and Brazil comprise half the population and half the economy of Latin America. For anyone trying to write about the whole region, those two countries should dominate about half of the discussion.
One of the real challenges is that people tend to get sucked into the story of the moment and can lose sight of the broader region. That’s happening right now with the Venezuela protests. It’s something that certainly occurred in 2009 with the Honduras coup. I’m not saying those issues are unimportant, but over my nine years of blogging I’ve come to realise that it’s deceptively simple to write about the story of the moment that everyone is paying attention to, but often more useful to try to provide unreported details and context to the stories that people aren’t following.
Climate change might be the most overlooked issue. Latin America and the Caribbean only have a small role to play in mitigation, but they face a major adaptation challenge to overcome the problems that warmer summers and more extreme natural disasters will bring. In 2011 I met a coffee farmer in Nicaragua who told me that his business has already lost 10% of production due to climate change and that he was preparing to change the altitude at which he grows coffee. It’s a sign that climate change isn’t a futuristic threat. It’s happening today and impacting the region.
I spend a lot of time thinking about how technology shifts will impact security, politics and economics in Latin America. Too many think tanks would laugh at a question like, “How will robots impact Latin America?” But it’s a serious question the region will soon have to face. New manufacturing processes, 3D printing and robotics are all going to hit various sectors around the region. When Mexico’s car factories increase their robotics or when Chilean mines use robots to drill for the deepest ore, it’s going to impact jobs around the region and many of the people who lose their jobs won’t have the skills to adapt to the changing economic environment. The region will also need a better-educated and trained workforce to handle the new equipment. On the security front, when private security firms and criminal cartels have unmanned vehicles and facial recognition software at their disposal, it’s going to be a new arms race for which the region’s public security forces are unprepared.
On the arrest of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera and Mexico’s approach to the drug war …
El Chapo is probably the most significant organised crime leader to be taken alive since Al Capone. There’s a lot of speculation about how it might impact the internal dynamics of the Sinaloa Cartel and security in Mexico as a whole. My opinion is that, whatever the secondary effects, Guzman is responsible for a significant amount of crime and violence and it would be right for him to face justice.
Most of the hemisphere, including the Obama administration in the United States, is moving its drug policy to treat addiction as a health rather than a criminal issue. Those are the correct public policy steps. The legalisation of marijuana is also correct and practically inevitable over the coming decade given the way public opinion is moving.
Yet, even though I support a major shift in drug policy, including marijuana legalisation, I think that drug policy shift will have minimal impact on violent and organised crime in Latin America. This idea that legalisation is a magic wand that will fix Latin America’s security problems is the weakest argument by drug policy reformers. Criminal groups profit plenty from extortion and kidnapping and they will find ways to profit in a legalised drug market. Violent and organised crime exist because of weak government institutions, not because of any specific drug policy.
For all of Latin America, combating organised crime is about strengthening government institutions and civil society more than it is drug policy. That means police reform, judicial reform and prison reform. It also means strengthening communities and providing education and jobs to the youth who make up the vast majority of criminals and victims.
On prisons and impunity …
Prisons are ultimately a human rights issue. They reflect how we treat the marginalised populations of the hemisphere. When prisons are full of violence and corruption, they take away the basic right to dignity that all human beings, even criminals, deserve. When about half of prisoners are in pre-trial detention without having been convicted, it’s a denial of democratic rights that weakens democracy in the region as a whole.
For the realists who think that answer above is too squishy, there are important strategic reasons to reform prisons. We need a system that can effectively process criminals and rehabilitate those who should re-enter society. Latin America pays a high cost, in terms of economics and security, in jailing criminals without giving them a path to reintegrate into society. In too many Latin American countries, prisons serve as recruitment and training grounds for gangs, strengthening the very organisations that they should be helping to stop.
One of Latin America’s biggest challenges is impunity. The fact most violent crimes are never successfully investigated and prosecuted is part of why crime has increased in many countries. And yet, with a conviction rate under 10 per cent, Latin America’s prisons are overflowing. The region can’t tackle impunity without fixing the prison system. It simply doesn’t have the space.
On the future of the region …
I’m an optimist about Latin America. I think the region has improved immensely in recent decades in terms of economic development, human rights and democracy. I think the region will improve even more in the decades to come. I worry that I and others write about Latin America’s problems and challenges too often without writing about its progress and strengths. The Americas are a great place to live and work. The hemisphere has a bright future ahead.