Updates on Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Central America, and US/LatAm policy

There has quite a bit of interesting and/or alarming US/Latin America-related news over the weekend:

Financial Times: Argentina creaks under extreme stress (Sept 7, 2018)

“if Mr Macri’s technocratic government, which heads the G20 and has followed economic orthodoxy while also enjoying full international support, cannot ride out fickle markets, who can?”

Trump’s strengthening of the US dollar, Turkey’s ongoing economic struggles and related contagion, and Argentina’s significant indebtedness have led to a significant devaluation of the Argentine peso and a rush to shore up the government’s coffers via a $50B IMF loan.

Unlike many Latin American leaders and Argentinian predecessors, Macri has mostly followed austerity-based economic orthodoxy and market-first principles in trying to assure investors and international markets of Argentina’s resilience. However, Marci’s upcoming reelection in 2019 is looming, and criticism levied by his political opposition is continuing to mount. Complicating matters further is general Argentine antipathy towards the IMF, who previously put the country into extreme austerty after it defaulted on a 2001 loan.

In the background, the Argentinian public sector, including former President Cristina Kirschner, have been implicated in upwards of “$36 billion”  in public contract graft and broader corruption reminiscent of to Brazil’s Lava Jato scandal. Per Macri, a longtime opponent of Kirschner and her populist agenda: “This beats watching Netflix.”


New York Times: Stable After Attack, Brazilian Candidate May See Political Fortunes Rise (Sept 7, 2018)

“This plays straight into his message: the security issues, the violence and the need to address those issues. There are still a lot of undecided voters. It might be that a number of them now say ‘Bolsonaro is our guy.’”

My Whatsapp feed, the ubiquitous social media app known in Brazil as “Zap,” blew up on Friday afternoon with live images of the stabbing of Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro. As the video clearly demonstrates, while Bolsonaro was being paraded through doting supporters, a man approached him and stabbed him in the abdomen.

For a reviled candidate who has been hugely critical of Brazil’s violence, and the inability of mainstream Brazilian politicians to adequately address the violence issue, the stabbing seems to play directly into Bolsonaro’s hands, and has led many to predict that this episode will further strengthen his lead ahead of the October 7th first-round Presidential election.

Following the Supreme Court’s judgment of Lula’s ineligibility to run in the election, Bolsonaro leads a crowded pack of aspiring Presidents in the low-20s, with several center-left/left wing candidates trailing him with 12% of the vote.

As the electoral hour of Presidential coverage has begun, one of the common discounts levied against Bolsonaro is the weakness of his political party, leaving him with under 8 seconds of television time for every 12.5 minute bloc of Presidential political coverage, far behind the leading 5 minutes, 30 seconds for Geraldo Alckmin. However, tv news has been transfixed on the stabbing and Bolsonaro’s recovery at São Paulo’s Albert Einstein hospital, effectively serving as a supplemental platform for Bolsonaro and his views.

Subsequent conversations with Brazilians has led me to believe that Brazilians are increasingly recognizing Bolsonaro as a more serious candidate, and to some a near-certainty to make it into the October 28 second round of elections. Defenders of Bolsonaro sexist, racist, and anti democratic past have become more vocal, as have the doubts from his detractors of his ability to win the second round (“what about the female vote?”), as well as his ability to govern and create a coalition post-election. Again and again, the similarities between Bolsonaro and Trump rear their head.


NYTimes: Trump Administration Discussed Coup Plans With Rebel Venezuelan Officers (Sept 8, 2018)

In a series of covert meetings abroad, which began last fall and continued this year, the military officers told the American government that they represented a few hundred members of the armed forces who had soured on Mr. Maduro’s authoritarianism.

Back in February, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised the prospect of a potential Venezuelan military-led response to the ongoing disaster in Venezuela, which has led millions to flee the country and has left the majority of those remaining subject to constant food shortages and hyperinflation. However, it appears as if Trump has been transfixed with the idea of military action in Venezuela for some time, raising the idea of a military “invasion” of Venezuela, first with his military and diplomatic advisors (the now-ousted Tillerson and McMaster), and then with Latin American leaders including Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and others. Now, the NYTimes is reporting that a potential military-led coup in Venezuela is not just bluster: there has been US-Venezuela discussions via backchannels regarding a potential military-led rebellion.

As the article recounts, following news leaks of President Trump’s comments on a military option in Venezuela, rebel officers reached out to Washington (again, it seems), seemingly curious whether Trump’s endorsement could lead to concrete support by the Americans. However, the US did not provide a definitive response and many of the plotting officers were detains, and suspected to have been subsequently tortured for their role in the potential plot.

The article also mentions previous attempts by President Obama and his administration to weigh the potential benefit of allowing the Venezuelan military to unseat the Maduro administration against the potential backlash associated with another in a longstanding record of US-supported anti democratic interventions in Latin America, as well as the US’ low opinion of the Venezuelan military, seen as corrupt and complicit in the illegal drug trade in the region. The article presents division within the Obama White House, with some believing in the military’s ability to transition to democracy in the country, and others highly skeptical.

With the aerial drone-based assassination attempt of Maduro last month and the subsequent crackdown on his opposition, and the now-confirmation of the US’ potential role in a military coup, it is likely that Maduro will feel empowered to act with further impunity, creating even-worse conditions in the already beleaguered country.


NYTimes: U.S. Recalls Top Diplomats From Latin America as Worries Rise Over China’s Influence (Sept 8, 2018)

“Trump has openly and systematically offended Latin American countries and their people. He labels us as rapists and criminals, has never traveled to the region as president, has deported and separated families, and threatened to cut all sort of aid. China comes with an offer of friendship and economic development (albeit one that I don’t think will pan out). Why the surprise?”

As recounted back in March, China is quietly and effectively asserting itself across the world in an attempt to unseat (or join) the US as leaders on the international stage. Through its belt and road initiative and infrastructure investments across Africa (mostly built by imported Chinese workers), China has been building physical infrastructure across the world in an attempt to increase trade and Chinese exports to these regions, use “soft power” to build Chinese goodwill around the world, and to develop surveillance, intelligence, and military capabilities around the globe (as in the frightening case of the Chinese space station in Chile).

To finance these projects, the governments often sign convoluted deals with the Chinese construction and infrastructure banks that are oftentimes “junk” at signing, i.e., highly unlikely to be repaid. Clauses inserted in these financing contracts allow for Chinese possession of sovereign assets in case of non-payment.

In Zambia, the national power utility ZESCO, as well as the state-owned TV and radio news channel ZNBC are either at risk or already Chinese-owned due to the government’s default on more than $8B in loans. In Sri Lanka, who is more than $3B in debt to the Chinese, the Hambantota Port has been taken over by the state-owned China Merchants Port, creating the awkward situation whereby China now has land and sea access in a sovereign nation.

In an letter written by members from both parties of the US Senate addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, the Senators call Chinese loan efforts to poor countries ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ and ‘predatory Chinese infrastructure financing’.

Rather than previous liberalist attempts by the US and its allies to tie foreign direct investment to democratic elections and press freedoms, China has made little requests of the sovereign nation/debtors, to the delight of the oftentimes democratically elected leaders. However, one fairly consistent request from China has unwavering and consistent: an adherence to its One China policy, and a subsequent severing of diplomatic ties and recognition for Taiwan.

As the Senators write in their letter, “Beijing’s attempts to weaponize capital is not just limited to Asia and Africa, but extends to Europe,” before citing ties via the Belt and Road initiative to countries in the Balkans such as Montenegro and Serbia. It appears as if the Senators, like Trump so many times over in the first years of his Presidency, overlooked even closer neighbors to the South.

Now, the United States has taken the dramatic action of removing diplomats from three Central American countries with historically warm ties: Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Panama, after each of the countries have severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan, no doubt in an attempt to appease their Chinese benefactors. Due in part to Trump’s indifference, these leaders see the entrance of China and the few strings attached to Chinese capital as a counterbalance to the longstanding US-led hegemony in the region. As the article recounts, there are further fears that the four Central American nations that still recognize Taiwan (Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua) could soon disavow Taiwan as well, complicating matters even further not only for Trump and his administration, but for longstanding ties and goodwill in the region.

Barnes & Noble: What Is to Be Done?

On a day off, I’m finally catching up and catching my breath on the ongoing saga at Barnes & Noble.

For those unapprised, the retailer’s latest CEO, Demos Parneros, was promptly and unceremoniously fired without severance in July, little more than a year into his tenure as B&N’s CEO. The company’s explanation of his departure was fairly ominous, citing “violations of the Company’s policies,” but not “due to any disagreement with the Company regarding its financial reporting, policies, or practices or any potential fraud relating thereto.” Given the sudden firing without any warning signs, and the political and social climate and continued incidence of sexual harassment and abuse from individuals in positions of power, one was left to infer whether his firing was a precaution taken against the #metoo movement.

When Parneros was hired in 2017, he was the 4th CEO hired by B&N since 2013. While Parneros was an outsider, spending most of his career at Staples, he had spent the previous 5 months as B&N’s COO under the former CEO Ron Boire, a retail executive with similar big-box credentials (Sears, Best Buy, Toys R Us, KMart).

Parneros’ was tasked with stemming B&N’s sales decline and improving traffic at B&N stores: lofty, but somewhat typical objectives for a retail executive. In early interviews and press conferences, Parneros cited complementary products like educational toys and gifts as key to turning around the stores. In addition, he was encouraged by the different experimental business models deployed in B&N’s ‘concept’ stores – stores with smaller formats, or restaurants-cum-bookstores like the short lived B&N Kitchen concept (covered previously here.)

B&N’s founder, chairman, and largest shareholder, Len Riggio was enthusiastic about Parneros’ potential: “It has become abundantly clear over the last five months that Demos is a perfect fit for our company and an outstanding choice for Chief Executive Officer. I believe Demos is fully prepared to help foster a new era of growth for Barnes & Noble.”

Unfortunately, the marriage between Riggio and Parneros was far from a success, as outlined in the contentious defamation lawsuit Parneros has brought against B&N following his expulsion. According to the filings, B&N was in late stage proceedings to be sold, a surprising divulgence that was previously unknown. After the buyer rescinded its offer for B&N, potentially as a result of concerning diligence findings, the relationship between Parneros and the hands-on Riggio soured, creating an untenable working relationship between the two leaders. The lawsuit details Riggio’s hands-on and active management of the company, creating minimal maneuverability and a difficult working environment for any CEO. The lawsuit goes further, describing Riggio’s “erratic and unprofessional behavior” and citing specific cases that create a portrait of Riggio as “volatile,” “refusing to relinquish control,” and deeply critical of many of the management surrounding him.

B&N’s response to the lawsuit wholly rejected Parneros’ lawsuit assertions, and placed the responsibility for his firing squarely on his own shoulders. In a brusque, blunt statement, B&N likened Parneros’ lawsuit to extortion, and pointed to “sexual harassment, bullying behavior and other violations of company policies” as the reasons behind his departure, citing detailed episodes from Parneros’ tenure of wrongheaded if not malicious behavior. The statement also took the unusual step of defending Riggio’s actions as described in the lawsuit, and claiming Parneros’ suit was “replete with lies and mischaracterizations.”

Regardless of the ultimate truth in this public spat, which likely contains elements of truth on both sides, B&N is in the incredibly unenviable position of trying to find a new CEO for the business, its fifth in so many years. In the interim, B&N will continue to be led by a triumvirate of B&N executives: Allen Lindstrom, CFO; Tim Mantel, chief merchandising officer; and Carl Hauch, v-p, stores. Missing from this group is Riggio himself, who “remains B&N executive chairman and will be involved in its management,” per B&N.

In an environment when book sales continue to fall, with audiobooks continuing to eat up overall share, and eCommerce (Amazon) continuing to eat up the world, the ongoing executive mismanagement of Barnes & Noble seems like an unforced error of epic proportions. In Publishers Weekly, publishing executives  anonymously expressed disappointment in Parneros’ departure, and the broader and continued instability at B&N. They were encouraged by the early stages of Parneros’ restructuring plans for the chain, including investment in supply chain improvement, a continued downsizing of its retail stores, and broader cost cutting initiatives to enable B&N to continue to compete effectively.

It will be interesting to see how B&N moves forward from this latest episode. One interesting development to keep an eye out for is an outright sale. Many believe that the offer for B&N was made by Indigo, a successful and ambitious Canadian bookseller who has recently expanded its footprint into the United States. Another possibility is Books-a-Million, the second largest US bookseller and a private company. In either case, given the late stage at which the prospective buyer pulled out, it’s unlikely that they will return to the negotiating table to attempt another acquisition unless things take a significant turn for the worse.

In my mind, it’s hard to imagine a suitor for B&N that wasn’t already invested in the bookselling industry. Major players in the retail industry are already beleaguered enough without having to take on B&N and the relatively-needy publishing industry. Amazon is a possibility, but given their modest bookstore ambitious and recent acquisition of Whole Foods, I think it would be an unlikely one.

In the financial markets, an investor named Richard Schottenfeld of the eponymous Schottenfeld Management announced an increase in his ownership stake in B&N to 7% today. With this stake, Schottenfeld joins the ranks of Riggio (12% ownership) and other institutional  investors (Blackrock – 10%, Dimensional Fund Advisors – 8%, Vanguard – 7%).

To complement his purchase, Schottenfeld took the relatively unusual step of providing a rationale for his investment in the related filing. Schottenfeld mentions that he is in discussions with Riggio and B&N management to help spur “changes in company leadership at the executive and board level, implementation of operational improvements,” thereby to increase the “desirability of selling the company.” Sounding eerily reminiscent of Parneros’ introductory musings, in the filing Schottenfeld advocated for a focus on toys and games and less on music and DVDs, driving “higher value” from the cafes, and “enhancement to the experiential aspect of the stores.”

As he further outlines, he believes that “the company represents an attractive acquisition target,” somewhat ridiculously citing the disclosure of the attempted purchase in Parneros’ lawsuit as an “encourag[ing]” sign of other potential suitors for the company. Schottenfeld “encourage[s] the Company to continue in its efforts to explore and seriously consider all available sale transaction opportunities.” Whether there is anything more behind this thesis than provided in the filing is up for debate.

In response to this news, $BKS is up ~12% today.

Meanwhile, B&N just reported its first quarter sales, reporting a 7% sales decline and an $16M operating loss for the quarter, both results more or less in line with the previous year’s results.

Brazilian election update: Lula ruled ineligible

As outlined in a post last week, while onlookers around the world advocated for allowing Lula to run in the upcoming Presidential election, many Brazilians already discounted his electoral status. Given his ongoing incarceration and the ‘clean slate’ law, which prevents potential candidates with criminal records from running for office, it was unlikely that Brazil’s Supreme Court would overturn this law.

The principal argument from the international community was that enabling Lula to run would demonstrate the strength of Brazil’s democracy, and any prevention of his ability to run as politically motivated and an overstep of authority by Brazil’s courts. Lula was seen as the far-and-away frontrunner among a fractured and chaotic pool of candidates, with a solid base of support among Brazil’s working and poorer class.

Lula’s involvement in the endemic corruption exposed in the Lava Jato scandal, the reason for his continued imprisonment, sends a strong signal that even Brazil’s political elites are not immune to prosecution. On the other hand, there is no doubt that while Lula continues to be a powerful figurehead, there were, and continue to be, many other members of the ‘elite’ involved in Brazil’s ongoing political corruption, and remain free to enjoy their accumulated wealth, and even continue to run for political office.

Late last night (August 31st), ahead of the official start of the political campaigning season, the Supreme Court affirmed that Lula would be ineligible to run in the upcoming election. As part of their decision, the Court gave Lula’s party, the Workers’ Party, 10 days to appoint a new Presidential candidate.

The heir to Lula’s candidacy for the Workers’ Party, former São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad, has a very different background than Lula, whose working class roots and origin story, enshrined in the 2009 film Lula, Son of Brazil, have created a strong political mythology that continues to resonate across Brazil. While Lula has led the polling with as much as 40% of the vote, Haddad has failed to capture the imagination of the Brazilian populace despite Lula’s endorsement, only securing 4% of the likely voters in recent (but pre-decision) polling.

lula-hThe economist/academic Fernando Haddad and the former metalworker and union leader Lula, both members of the PT at a political rally

While some have deemed the Court’s decision as rushed, a ruling was much-needed and anxiously awaited by the rest of the candidates, just 40 days ahead of the October 7th first round vote. In the coming weeks, Haddad and Lula will increasingly cast themselves as inseparable, with Haddad as the executor of Lula (and the people’s) will. Whether or not Haddad will manage to win over Lula’s base of support remains a key question for predicting the outcome of the first round election.

Regardless, Lula’s ineligibility has created the feared scenario of a broad fracturing on the left, between the handselected candidate, Haddad, Lula’s former environmental minister mostly left of Haddad, Marina Silva, the center-right candidate, Geraldo Alckmin, Ciro Gomes, and other more fringe candidates.

Given his party’s strength, Alckmin will be propped up by the most television time during the ‘election hour’ — the legally-mandated proportional representation of political propaganda shown on public television during Brazil’s “primetime” hours leading up to the election. The “electoral hour,” a particularity of Brazilian politics, whereby political candidates (Presidential, Congressional, and state/local) are given free airtime upwards of 70 minutes, all shown free of charge. As mentioned above, the proportionate amount of time dedicated to each candidate is determined by the strength of the candidate’s party representation in Congress.

Given the two-round structure of the Presidential elections, whereby the top two candidates from the October 7th first round advance to a two-candidate second round (held October 28th), it’s easy to envision a scenario whereby infighting on the left results in a single member of the aforementioned candidates reaches the second round, joined by the right-wing Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro, who has been polling in second place behind Lula, will have very little television time as a member of the relatively unknown and curiously named conversative ‘PSL,’ or Social Liberal Party.

In this scenario, it will be interesting to see whether the left/center unifies around a single Second Round candidate, or whether Brazil’s endemic corruption and distrust of the political class will drive undecided voters to the ‘incorruptible’ military man Bolsonaro. Among the Brazilians I’ve spoken with, there is a strong sense that voters will coalesce under the ‘Never Bolsonaro’ platform, as opposed to any single candidate. However, as I’ve tried to remind my Brazilian friends, anything can happen, including the previously unimaginable, as the scenario elucidated above continues to seem shockingly close to the circumstances of Trump’s rise to power. Beyond widespread uncertainty, the election will be a strong test of strength of party politics (Alckemin, Haddad), versus forces of personality (Bolsonaro, Marina Silva) that will be studied by political scientists for decades to come.

It will be interesting to see how the financial markets react to the Court’s decision on Monday, as the Real has taken a beating against the dollar over the past week, reaching as high as 4.21 before settling at 4.055 by week’s end.

On Wrestling Failures, and (Momentary) Ju-Jitsu Successes

I think I was the worst wrestler in the history of my high school. Like, 1-30 terrible. Over my two season-long wrestling ”career,” I lost to everyone: boys and girls alike. And I remain convinced that the unsuspecting freshman that I beat was in his first few days of learning the sport. The opening bell would sound, and before I knew it, I would find myself on my back, struggling to avoid being pinned.

Despite the constant losing and the draining weight loss regimen, I enjoyed my wrestling experience, namely for the team’s camaraderie and training. While wrestling is an individual sport, each team trains collectively, and work together closely to improve each teammate’s individual prowess. Rather than being an embarrassing footnote in my life’s story, my high school wrestling failures have proven incredibly consequential, even life-changing.

When I made the decision to accept a job in Brazil, I did so despite not having any friends in the country, let alone family. With a newfound surplus of free time, I decided to take up Brazilian Ju-Jitsu (BJJ), a grappling-based martial art that has become one of the country’s biggest cultural exports. With my wrestling failures front-of-mind, I sought to approach my ju-jitsu training from a clean slate. ju-jitsu has become an instrumental part of my life since taking up the sport, and has re-enforced many of my closely held values.


After several weeks of settling into my new position, I found a nearby BJJ gym, hopeful that the gym’s proximity would give me little excuse to avoid going. From my first class, I was introduced to an entirely foreign experience, with specific rules and customs to attend to. As a white belt, I was relegated to the back of the gym, reserved for the most junior members of the gym. Surrounded by individuals with years and decades of experience, it is hard not to feel humbled every time I enter the gym, to this day. This humility serves as the basis for much of my learning and progression – my “novice” status enables me to ask basic or “dumb” questions, actively seek out opportunities to learn and improve. This humility drives my willingness to learn, and to not miss any opportunities to get better. This means constant, near-daily training, and pangs of guilt when I do decide to take a day or two off.


The gym is filled with students of all levels, from minimally experienced white belts to black belts with decades of experience. Inside the gym, age, physical prowess, social standing, and one’s profession, things that serve to divide us in the “real world,” especially in a place as unequal as Brazil, go away. As a white belt at the beginning of my journey in ju-jitsu, my primary objective is to act as a sponge – to “soak up” the actions and mannerisms of those around me. Each member of the academy has something for me to learn from. As a result of my willingness to learn, I’ve developed a strong camaraderie with the men and women of the gym, who have acted as a surrogate community for me and have embraced me as the token “foreigner” of the group.

Self improvement

As the weeks progressed, I joined the ranks of my fellow students in the gym: individuals on a personal journey of self improvement, but committed to working together to elevate their own craft and the success of the gym. My initial feelings of humility have not dissipated, but are momentarily accompanied by mommentary recognitions of progress.

One of my all-time heros, Anthony Bourdain, was a humble student of BJJ, a challenge he took up at the ripe age of 58 and partially based in the inspiration of his now ex-wife, Otavia Busia-Bourdain, a dedicated BJJ practitioner and competitor (here’s an article written by Busia-Bourdain on ‘how jujtisu changed her life’).

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Bourdain explained how BJJ has reengaged a long-dormant part of his brain:

I started at 58. It’s the last thing in the world I could’ve ever imagined wanting to do or enjoying. I’ve never hung out in a gym, I’ve never really cared about those things.

I think it can best be explained by, at my age, to entirely learn a new skill is deeply satisfying. To recreate the feeling of being the lowest person on the totem pole, being in a kitchen when I was 17, knowing nothing, in a very hard world. The incremental, tiny satisfactions of being a little less awful at something, every day, it’s like that with ju-jitsu for me. I’m learning an entirely new skill, a very difficult one, a very physically demanding one, but one that I think about for the rest of the day. They call it “physical chess” because it’s something you think about […] there’s a lot of engineering involved.


Recently, I’ve reflected a bit on my aptitude for ju-jitsu, especially in comparison to my tenure as a horrible wrestler. As I’m still reminded by my training companions, ju-jitsu is oftentimes about patience – about establishing your position, thinking about your next move, and conserving your energy, versus wrestling’s rule of constant motion.

This patience extends to my training more broadly. Time and time again, through injuries (a couple of undiagnosed deeply bruised/broken ribs, fingers, and toes), humiliating defeats, and periodic moments of retention, I am pitted with the enormity of the journey ahead of me and the need to maintain this perspective throughout this lifelong journey of advancement and improvement.

In August, I received my first examination result, adorning my white belt with two stripes, signifying my (minimal) advancement. Now several months in, I’m no longer at the far, far end of the gym, replaced by younger newcomers just a few months behind me. But far from any overconfidence or feelings of deservedness, I continually remind myself that the process continues, learning is lifelong, and I have decades to go before my jujitsu journey is complete.

Brazilian Presidential Elections, August 2018 – A “no win” situation?

Here in São Paulo, the city is beginning to come out of its winter season (July / August), a return to the relentless heat that makes up much of the year. Seven short weeks ahead of the first round of the Brazilian election, it feels as if election season is similarly beginning to ‘heat up.’ Before long, I expect the coming elections, arguably the most consequential since Lula’s ascendance in 2002, to embroil the country – inescapable from even passing conversations.

As an outsider to Brazil, I am admittedly insulated from the incessant news media and their daily stories recounting a statement made or question asked on the campaign trail. Even the notorious ‘horario eleitorial,’ a hour each night on broadcast television dedicated to proportionally representing the Presidential candidates (a fascinating breakdown here), will largely pass me by. As a result, much of my media consumption related to Brazilian politics take place via foreign correspondents and contributions to English-language publications. It’s been fascinating to contrast the increasing alarm making its way to international news consumers with my day-to-day conversations with Brazilians.

English language publications are mainly focused on two main stories: the continued and problematic ascendence of Jair Bolsonaro, which I’ve discussed before at length, with yet another red flag raised in the NYTimes’ opinion pages, and the no-win situation surrounding the electoral status of former President Lula da Silva. Lula has increasingly become Brazil’s most divisive figure, adding to his long-held status as its most popular. Since April, Lula has been imprisoned related to a ongoing investigation into corruption allegations, though he has remained a vocal member of the political press, disseminating statements through his lawyers and political allies.

As Reuters explains, over the next week the Brazilian courts are faced with determining whether or not to allow Lula to formally run for President. Given conviction in the “Lava Jato” corruption scandal for accepting bribes in exchange for state contracts, and various related corruption charges either underway or in ongoing appeal, Lula should be ineligible for running for President based on the “Clean Slate” law, passed by Lula himself in 2010.

Lula maintains his innocence on any claims of corruption, and critics and democracy advocates alike have cited the flimsy evidence behind his conviction, as well as accusations of political motivation behind his ongoing imprisonment. Despite his imprisonment and the claims of corruption that have shrouded him throughout the Lava Jato investigation, Lula remains extremely popular to many, and a political prisoner to some, who rally outside of the Curitiba prison that he’s being held in. If permitted to run, Lula would immediately become the frontrunner in the coming Presidential elections, presenting a vexing dilemma for the judges and a test of Brazil’s post-dictatorship democracy.

In the NYTimes, Lula was given an audience in the pages of the Opinion section (also available in Portuguese), calling for his release and citing an “extreme right-wing” conspiracy, led by Judge Sergio Moro but perpetrated by “right-wing, neoliberal elites who have always been opposed to our struggle for greater social justice and equality in Brazil.”

Meanwhile, the US Congress recently took the extraordinary step of writing a letter addressed to Sergio Amaral, the Brazilian Ambassador to the United States calling for the due process of Lula, conflating his imprisonment with the horrific murder of the activist Marielle Franco and the horrific human rights violations and murders associated with Brazil’s landless movement (a shocking and underdocumented crisis, as ably captured in the NY Review of Books). The letter, which includes members at the vanguard of the modern Democratic Party (Bernie Sanders, Keith Ellison, and Maxine Waters),

We also urge Brazil’s judicial and political authorities to ensure fair elections and human rights protections. We recommend that Brazil’s courts promptly assess the merits of the charges against President Lula, in which no material evidence has yet been presented as proof of the former president’s corruption charges. European former government leaders have urdged that President Lula be granted freedom while appeals to his conviction are pending, in accordance with Brazil’s constitutional guarantees. The fight against corruption must not be used to justify the persecution of political opponents or deny them the right to freely participate in elections.

In my conversations with Brazilians in São Paulo (far from a Lula stronghold), there is little doubt that Lula will be disbarred from participating in the election. Bolstering this viewpoint, there is speculation that Lula himself deems his eligibility as a foregone conclusion, but is seeking to keep hope alive among his supporters for as long as possible to prop up the electoral prospects of his partymate, Fernando Haddad and his Workers’ Party. As Reuters reports, Lula has “transformed his jail cell into his campaign headquarters

Jorge G. Castañeda, Mexico’s former Mexican foreign minister, penned an editorial in the NYTimes, weighing the case against the risk of disenfranchising millions of Brazilian voters, who believe deeply in his innocence regardless of any evidence plied against him. He ultimately advocates for Lula being allowed to run on the grounds of strengthening democracy in Brazil, and also as a “best-worst case” in comparison to the right-wing reactionary candidacy of Bolsonaro. Sound familiar?

Castañeda lays out the no-win situation left for the judges:

In the end, though I believe that the Lava Jato scandal, as well as the diligence of judges like Mr. Moro, have served Brazil and Latin America well, I prefer to see Lula on the ballot than in jail.

The charges brought against him are too flimsy, the purported crime so petty (until now), the sentence so brazenly disproportionate and the stakes so high that in Latin America today, democracy should trump — so to speak — the rule of law. In an ideal world, the two go together and certainly do not clash with each other. In Brazil, they do. I’ll go with democracy, warts and all.

Regardless of the judges’ decision next week, there are sure to be fireworks to come — for now, it’s just a question of from which side.


Brazilian President Michel Temer: Reviled Today, Beloved Tomorrow?

Over the weekend, I was pointed to an article in the Wall Street Journal that reframed some of my thoughts on the curious position of Brazil’s current President, Michel Temer.

August 16, 2018, Wall Street Journal: Brazilians Denounce Their Leader, but Economists Offer Praise

As former Americas Economist editor Michael Reid recounts in his book, Brazil: The Troubled Rise of a Global Power, Brazil’s macroeconomic and fiscal issues are numerous, centered around a bloated and unsustainable budget and pension system, gross inefficiency in government spending, and endemic corruption that extend from local fiefdoms to national politics.

In his book, Reid claims that the go-go bullish years of President Lula Inácio da Silva, where investment surged into Brazil and millions of citizens were pulled out of poverty, was a lost opportunity for Brazil to modernize its governance and fiscal spending. Rather than using the tide of macroeconomic goodwill to implement reforms, Lula ramped up government spending, buoyed by the high price of oil, winning over the Brazilian population and leading President Obama to call him “the most popular politician in the world.”

President Michel Temer, on the other hand, has been dramatically unpopular in Brazil from his assumption of power in 2016, after the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff for budgetary infractions. To many Brazilians, Temer is seen as illegitimate, the byproduct of a rigged and corrupt political system that kicked Rousseff out of office.

Fora-Temer-manifestaçãoFORA TEMER – Signs, chants, and graffiti envoking Temer’s illegitimacy can be seen across Brazil, as seen in this image from a 2016 protest on São Paulo’s Avenida Paulista

However, this illegitimacy has had a somewhat counterintuitive impact on Temer’s tenure. It appears that Temer has made the calculation that while there is little change that he will reclaim any of the popularity, that that by planting the seeds for medium-term macroeconomic success through unpopular reforms, history will judge him by his legacy of setting the stage for the success of successive leaders.

Per the Wall Street Journal:

The team cut inflation from 9% when Mr. Temer took office to 3% last year, the lowest since 1998, helping to alleviate the strain on household budgets. In a country beset by budget overruns and high public debt, his administration won constitutional approval limiting government spending for the first time.

Mr. Temer also cobbled together the legislative backing to loosen labor law restrictions, leading to a 25% drop in job-related lawsuits. His administration opened up a moribund oil sector to foreign investment, auctioning deep-water oil fields that won the government a nearly $2 billion signing bonus.

Under his watch, Brazil’s central bank trimmed its main interest rate to a 6.5% historic low from 14.25% two years ago.

Through these actions, Temer seems to be using the example of former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the architect of the 1994 Plano Real as Itamar Franco’s Minister of Finance, and subsequent President. Cardoso is oftentimes seen as the father of modern Brazil, and the individual most responsible for setting the stage for Lula’s (and Brazil’s) success.

As the article cites, Temer has not touched the most controversial and dangerous fiscal threat: the country’s bloated and unsustainable pension obligations, but the steps taken have served to shore up much-needed investor confidence, and set the stage for the upcoming October elections. In a year without a clear frontrunner or hegemonic party in Congress, whoever wins the Presidency will likely have to secure a coalition of different parties, preventing much of the hard work left to be done. While the elected President still has a-ways to go to restore confidence in Brazil, Temer’s recent tenure has laid some of the groundwork for future success, a curious position for one the most unpopular Presidents in Brazilian history.

Review – There, There, by Tommy Orange

Throughout my reading There, There, the critically-acclaimed debut novel from Tommy Orange, I innately sensed the vast number of stories, perspectives, and histories rattling around in his brain to share with the world, and the challenge he must have felt channeling them into a single novel. Each of these stories take the form of characters in the book, more than 20 all-told by the end of the novel, who share their own personal histories via chapters christened with their own names.

The sheer quantity of characters and voices should feel overwhelming, but in Orange’s steady hands, they each feel worth of their own consideration, and could be appreciated as short stories or excerpts in their own right. That these stories all tie together, each character with an intricately designed role in the novel’s broader narrative, speaks to Orange’s capacity as a storyteller.


The stories Orange tells, of Native Americans from Oakland, the West Coast, and across the United States converging on a powwow at the Oakland Coliseum, all feel familiar, as if pulled from a lifetime of Orange’s family, friends, and acquaintances. Through the chapter-vignettes, each character bares their own histories,  hopes, and fears. Their shared Native identities notwithstanding, each character feels separate and unique, requiring their own consideration and judgement.

Like Orange’s fictional documentary filmmaker Dene Oxendene (one of the earliest characters to appear in There, There) who receives a grant from the California Arts Council to document the stories and of the Native American community of Oakland and the meaning they assign to their Native identities, each of Orange’s characters have their own perspective on being Native, informed by childhoods, encounters, estrangements, and relationships. Over the course of the novel, the characters impart these feelings in all of their complexity, all to the benefit of the fortunate reader.

Far from “showing promise” or giving readers a bright future to look forward to, There, There hits it out of the park. The book stands on its own, and defies the labels and comparisons that readers and reviewers have already begun to bestow on it (and Orange.) It is a book that has the power to open up the minds and hearts of those who read it, and most importantly, accomplishes the objective set out by Orange in the book’s powerful prologue: to reintroduce Native Americans to the broader American public as they are today: beautiful, diverse, and proud.

Review – Tuff, by Paul Beatty

Over the past week, I ripped through Paul Beatty’s 2000 novel Tuff.

Tuff is my second work of Beatty’s after reading his Man Booker Award-winning novel The Sellout last year.

Whereas The Sellout’s fast-paced, reference laden satire hit my unsuspecting self like a whiff of nitrious-oxide, I came to Tuff more prepared, and ready to contend with Beatty’s combination of comedy, satire, and political/social commentary.


The book, written more than 15 years before The Sellout, feels a bit more optimistic, and a bit less cynical (with plenty reason), but otherwise Beatty’s strengths as an author, humorist, and cultural critic shine just as bright in Tuff as they do in The Sellout.

The book’s strengths are in its characters – Beatty creates caricatures that seem so outlandish and pulled from the pages of comic books, that you’re shocked when you begin to identify with these characters, relate to them, and begin to understand them. Each of his characters comes armed with their own worldview, experiences, and opinions, and the book is at its best when these characters are arguing with one another – the book is interspersed with bullshit sessions on stoops across East Harlem and the broader District 8 of the New York City Council.

To revel in Beatty’s whip-sharp jokes and turns of phrase alone, which themselves alone make his books’ worthy of a read, would be to miss out on some of the broader meanings behind his books. In a satirical but no-less-impactful way, Tuff asks very important questions about living in cities (especially New York), and the way these cities create a woven patchwork of coexistence and common experience, with lessons on every city block.

Tuff makes you laugh, think, and miss New York City at once – an incredibly worthy 250-odd pages.

Designing Puzzles, Games, Worlds

Over the past two weekends, I’ve devoted hours of my free time playing Myst III: Exile for the first time, after its ported re-release to modern machines by the venerable Gog.com (formerly GoodOldGames.com.)

With a bit of remove since playing Riven, a game that I had been initially introduced to as a child, I feel like I can reflect more clearly on the incredible pleasure I get from playing these games – exploring the individual levels created, working through the puzzles put forth, and immersing myself in the broader worlds created by the folks at Cyan.

exile-02exile-03exile_1Screenshots from Myst III: Exile (2001)

As a younger person, the concept of video game designer is an abstract one, most likely conceived more so as video game “player” (which now, coincidentally, is actually a real job) than designer – of worlds, levels, mechanics, and stories. What’s so incredibly pleasurable about playing games from the Cyan canon, and especially in the progression from Myst to Riven to Exile, is how much care and attention was given to the design of these games, and how much these games were created with the “player” in mind.

As I’ve come to innately learn through playing their games, the game designers expect an active and observant player (with some baseline knowledge of physics concepts). These are not games to be mindlessly played through on a couch – one must be willing to be challenged and occasionally frustrated. In exchange for these ‘asks,’ the game designers have gorgeously constructed worlds filled with areas to explore and puzzles to be solved.

Unlike Riven (and Myst before it), I’ve made a conscious effort to work my way through the game without the assistance of walkthroughs or obvious hints that would take the thinking out of my hands. As a result, I’ve gone through momentary bouts of getting stuck, and several frustration-/exhaustion-quits (the lesser known cousin of the famous “rage quit.”) However, this has also led to intense, pleasure-filled sequences as I figure things out, either while playing the game itself, or via a stray thought on a particularly thorny area passing through my head over the course of my non-gaming day.

Cyan’s puzzles are not meant to “break” you, nor are they reserved for only the most mathematically astute codebreakers. Rather, they are mostly rely on the player’s power of observation, the ability to insert oneself into the world(s) constructed by the designers to orient oneself, learn the world’s rules, and play within the confines of the game’s “sandbox.” From there, it’s mostly a question of connecting the dots between these in-game observations (I use a notebook to jot things down), with necessary patience and reflection in between.

One of the interesting byproducts of playing these games has been the exercise of thinking like a designer to try to draw logical connections, and make progress within the game. In my view, this requires the perspective of an adult – the ability to actively place yourself in the shoes of another (in this case, a grown-up game designer), to logically work backwards and make progress with the “game.” This is something that I could have never reasonably done as a pre-teen clicking through the various art panels of Myst with mouth agape. One stray thought that I’ve returned to often as an adult is the “limits” of videos games themselves, whether due to graphics, computer processing power, or the concept of a video game itself. As a younger person, these games (even the most basic MS-DOS games) felt like they had almost unlimited potential if I was good/smart/adept enough at unlocking them, able to blur the lines between the game and reality, and the possibility of deeper secrets underneath the surface of the game.

Like a director’s mise-en-scene, a novelist’s detail, or an artist’s choice of color, subject, or style, every element of the worlds being explored within the Cyan’s video games were considered by the designers, and in turn left to be interpreted by the players – why was this put here? What question is this meant to solve? In Cyan’s games, which oftentimes include minimal dialogue and no narration, rooms are strewn with tools and artifacts with no broader purpose other than to further immerse the player in these strange worlds, as well as notebooks that take you into the minds of the characters (protagonists and antagonists alike). This, combined with goregous art and immersive sound design, gives a game like Exile, released all the way back in 2001, a timeless quality, and elevates it from a mere video game into a world of art, in my mind (though it appears as if MoMA agrees).

Aside from continuing to refine game mechanics and further improve the game’s intuitive connection between player and game, the game’s principal technological leap from its predecessor (released four years prior) is the use of a panoramic, VR-like perspective to allow the player a full perspective on what’s below, above, and next to him. Today, more than 17 years since Exile’s release (and even longer since its design), the concept of VR has sought to replicate this sensation, adding a more immersive video headset and motion controllers as well as more photo-realistic graphics, but otherwise not changing the core concept in any major way.

In my mind, Cyan’s immersive worlds, and their ability to unlock the innate human pleasure of exploring and figuring things out represented the best use case for VR, in video games or otherwise. It’s no surprise that Cyan’s upcoming release, Firmament, is being designed to be played in VR, and deemed “a new VR experience” by Cyan. Interestingly, its predecessor, Obduction, was given a VR-release after its initial design, which ultimately proved ambitious but underbaked. Back to the drawing board, I have the utmost confidence that the next game will draw on the lessons learned from Obduction, and potentially be the first great VR game, As Cyan founder Rand Miller recently said in an interview regarding the transition from Obduction to Firmament:  “We definitely jumped in, and realized that this was going to work, but it also allowed us to get a nice head start on what’s coming next. It definitely seems like what we do, making these worlds, is definitely going to be amplified by VR.”

Obduction_01A goregous screenshot from Cyan’s latest, Obduction (2016), to be played at some point

One day, I’ll spend the money to update my machine to be able to play some of these newer games. In the meantime, I will continue to maintain that a masterpiece stands the test of time no matter when it was created, and is oftentimes more innovative and engaging than the flashier, better looking new releases. For now, good old games will have to do.

Hitting ‘Publish’

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about journaling vs. blogging on this site, and how to balance between the two in a productive and beneficial way.

There’s an obvious psychological difference between words that intended for broader consumption, and those that are kept close and mostly to myself — consciously or not, there’s a certain self-censoring to one’s public-facing writings, as opposed to the more unstructured, impulsive, and emotionally honest relationship between a person and their journal.

However, I do think there’s room for both, and think that the public blog has more utility than one might expect in the journal/blog writing continuum.

When I decided to try and revive this webspace, I had two primary objectives.

The first was to hold myself accountable to the act of consistent writing – any significant length of time between posts would be readily noticeable to the curious / critical visitor, including myself.

The second objective was to do away with the fear of reprisal from broader consumption of my own thoughts and opinions: to leave little distance between my name and my writing, and to leave myself open to the public criticism, commentary, and consideration that putting your name and opinions the internet entails. In doing so, I recognize that I will occasionally be wrong, misguided, naive, or look stupid, and have to be okay with that.

As a general principle, I am a huge proponent of the importance of incremental improvement, the ability of one’s growth mindset to propel one’s learning and abilities throughout one’s life. From a personal standpoint, the skillset that is most important to me deals with the absorption of ideas, and my ability to impart my own interpretations and thoughts on these ideas coherently and cogently. Further, I believe it is crucial to learn from the responses and perspectives of others, who will only be able to respond to my thoughts with their own if I can express myself in a clear and structured fashion.

Therein lies the value of the blog – a repository for my own thoughts and a time capsule to be revisited by myself and others as I continue to learn and grow, while simultaneously a place to hone my ability to translate my thoughts into words, paragraphs, and blog posts.

Ryan Holiday recently reflected on revisiting his first book, Trust Me, I’m Lying, which he wrote and published at the age of 25:

When reviewing these pages — pages I’d hurriedly written and edited in my excitement to publish my first book — I wonder who the hell I thought I was. I’d studied and sat with the topic for how long? And here I was, printing words that could never be unprinted. I’m embarrassed by the certainty of it. As if it had never occurred to me to hedge my bets or entertain the possibility that subsequent events might prove me wrong. Why couldn’t I have said simply that this is what I thought at the time and knew to be true to the best of my ability? There’s a pervasive overdone-ness to so much of it. If there’s any proof of the ego’s insecurity, it’s there — in the fact that I have to put two sentences where one would clearly do, a big word where a simpler one would have sufficed.

Ryan continues:

And here I am now, regretting it, as I inevitably will regret parts of this article, and parts of the article I wrote last week and the one I will publish next week.

Not having had the privilege of publishing a book at 25, I can only imagine the feeling of revisiting your first book, after years and further published books that more accurately reflect how he seems himself today. However, I believe this ultimately only reflects positively on his evolution as an author, as a thinker, and as a human being. His ability to reflect on his initial writing with humility, and to have the distance and clarity to critically examining his younger self is a testament to the evolution that he’s undergone in just six short years. In my eyes, this reflects much more positively on himself and who he is today than the fact that his previous writing may have been immature, boorish, or incorrect.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book We Were Eight Years in Power is a truly fantastic collection of essays written during President Obama’s Presidency that dissect the broader context behind the President’s ascension, accomplishments, and legacy. Each essay is accompanied by an ‘up-to-date’ introduction that I found especially resonant. In these autobiographical pieces, Ta-Nehisi reflects on his year-by-year journey as a news reporter to a magazine contributor and blogger for the Atlantic to the author of Between the World and Me, his trials and tribulations from self-doubt and poverty, and his personal, professional, and intellectual evolution during Obama’s two terms.

In the book, he cites his blog, of which I was a faithful follower (but not contributor), as the place where the majority of his intellectual development and opinions were formed. During that span, he reflected on the books his was reading, openly solicited the thoughts, opinions, and supplemental reading and recommendations of his commenters and interacted with likeminded (and some non-likeminded individuals) on subjects that became the basis of some of his most lauded pieces. As he humbly recounts, it was those oftentimes anonymous contributors, as well as his desire to return to his blog day-after-day, week-after-week, that formed the basis of much of his later success as an author, thinker, and public intellectual.

One day, I hope to be able to revisit this blog with the same type of embarrassment and humility that Ryan and Ta-Nehisi see their earlier writings and blogs, and look towards this (and the internet in general) as a place where I was able to learn, grow, and develop. Until then, the onus is on me to continue to read and think, as well as compose my conclusions for all to see, consume, and criticize here on this site.