Europe/Americas update: March 17-18 2018



The experts said it couldn’t be done, but Vladimir Putin proved them all wrong. Through nothing but his indomitable force of will, a deep love for the Russian people, a complete lack of a credible opposition, and nearly total control of state media, Putin eked out an upset win in Russia’s presidential election on Sunday. Not to take anything away from the UMBC men’s basketball team, but their upset pales in comparison. It wasn’t easy! Putin’s slim lead, with somewhere around 75% of the vote, means he’s overcome serious challengers like That One Guy, and I Think There Was a Woman Who Ran?, and What About…Oh Wait, I Think He’s in Jail. They all ran excellent campaigns and should be congratulated for the part they played in creating the facsimile of a democratic process.

In terms of the actual stakes in this election, the turnout, Putin did…alright. Exit polls put the turnout around 64 percent. If accurate, that’s not good–especially since it would be down slightly from the turnout in Putin’s similarly uncontested 2012 presidential election, whose results produced sizable protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg–but it certainly could have been worse. There have been reports of ballot stuffing and other irregularities that may have been intended to boost turnout, and there are also reports of people possibly having been forced to vote, or enticed with raffles and other potential rewards for voting, but most of that will be unprovable and even if it could be proven it wouldn’t matter in any tangible sense. Putin won, big, and it was all very simple and believable.

Putin may want to give some thought at this point to arranging his succession, seeing as how this is supposed to be his final term and he will be on the other side of 70 when it ends (assuming he lives through it, and since the average life expectancy for a 65 year old man in Russia is around 77 it’s fairly safe to assume he’ll make it). There is no obvious heir at this point and Putin has a lot of interests to protect.


Former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, still in self-imposed exile over last year’s independence referendum, told the audience at a human rights event in Geneva on Sunday that maybe full independence doesn’t have to be the endgame for Catalonia. Puigdemont suggested that “the Swiss model,” basically federalism on steroids with a relatively weak central government holding everything together, could serve as a basis for Spain. Somehow I don’t think Madrid will agree.



Opposition figure Henri Falcón’s decision to enter the Venezuelan presidential race in May despite most opposition parties having chosen to boycott the race has made him a polarizing figure in Venezuela. Opposition leaders are angry with him for undermining their boycott, I guess because boycotts have worked so well for the Venezuelan opposition in the past. He’s taking heat internationally, especially from the US, for “legitimizing” the election. Supporters of President Nicolás Maduro are angry with him because…well, actually that should be pretty obvious. So he’s earned enemies on both sides of the country’s political divide, but he might be winning the race anyway:

And yet, a clutch of opinion polls show Falcon ahead, bolstering his campaign mantra that he is a natural transition candidate with appeal to a moderate majority fed up with political polarization and economic chaos.


Widely-followed pollster Datanalisis, for example, put him more than 10 percentage points ahead in voter intentions.

None of this should be taken to mean that Falcón is the favorite. Opinion polling is an inexact thing in general and in Venezuela in particular, but even if Falcón is winning Maduro has a lot of levers to pull to fend him off. Already he’s reportedly started increasing welfare payouts, for example. And Maduro could always just cheat, since he controls the mechanisms by which cheating would take place.


Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, argues that the Senate should use the upcoming confirmation hearings for Mike Pompeo and Gina Haspel to thoroughly examine the Trump administration’s approach to foreign policy:

Democrats and Republicans alike must make these hearings a litmus test of the Trump administration’s foreign and security policy. At minimum, Congress must interrogate its planned approach in Syria and its explanation of the brutal Saudi-led war in Yemen that it is aiding and abetting. It must challenge the administration’s vision for a long-term U.S.-Russia policy, its ultimate objective with Iran and the nuclear deal, and its strategy for North Korea and the entire Korean Peninsula, as well as Japan, not to mention the overall strategy for dealing with the number one economy in the world, China. Congress must assess the covert operations in Ukraine, Venezuela, and elsewhere, the approach to Mitrovica and the rest of Kosovo and the ultimate objective with regard to Turkey, including its approach to dealing with the growing tension on Cyprus—fueled by Ankara—and the brewing fight over the Eastern Mediterranean’s gas fields. Congress must also evaluate the administration’s immediate and long-term plans for countering aggressive Russian actions in the Arctic and conduct an overall review of U.S. policy with respect to Mexico, Canada, and the remainder of the Western Hemisphere.


Impossible? Not at all, if Congress knows what it’s doing. I realize that’s a huge charge for this Congress, but I persist nonetheless because recently I’ve detected a growing unease on the Hill and a desire to do something. A few smart members are willing to lead such an effort.

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