1. Every person who lives or works in Latin America has encounters with Gabo, even if we never met him personally. The themes of his writing impact both modern fiction and politics, which sometimes are the same.

    I picked up a used copy of Cien Años de Soledad in Spanish when I studied abroad in Chile. It was a time when I was still struggling with Spanish (particularly Chilean Spanish) and yet I powered through the novel in a few short days. I remember being gripped by the story. I also remember having to reread parts over again, unsure whether I had actually understood what occurred. Did that person float into the air? Was that person eaten by ants? For someone still trying to grasp Spanish, interpreting magical realism doesn’t make it much easier.

    Spend some time in the tropics and Gabo’s inspiration for some of Macondo’s creative and destructive forces becomes obvious. We had a bananas and papayas magically grow in our backyard with almost no effort from us. The rains and winds could be destructive on any given day. But the growth of everything green during the rainy season would have covered the house completely within months if someone didn’t take a machete to it on a regular basis.

    Was that person eaten by ants? I was confused by the ants reference when I studied in Chile, but completely understood it after a few years of living in Nicaragua. Spend time living in a house in the tropics and you come to respect that ants are a force of nature that create and destroy. Smaller ants would find their way in to attack even the smallest bit of food that was left out. The giant ants tunnels and hills along one of the fence lines outside began to destroy some of the foundation to the property. In the tropics, the power of ants is incredible to watch and nearly futile to fight, even with modern technology.

    Gabo once said his primary job was as a journalist. In the past few years I’ve taught occasional history seminars on Latin America and his “News of a Kidnapping” usually makes the list of books I recommend students read to understand modern Colombia. His fictional works have great symbolic importance to the country and region, but understanding the wave of kidnappings and drug trafficker fights that took place in Colombia in the 1980’s and 90’s helps define the politics today.

    Gabo intended for the history of Macondo to reflect the history of Colombia and Latin America. Generations of people who share similar names repeat the mistakes of their ancestors. The idea of a “death foretold” from another of his stories is a sad foreshadowing that is sometimes just as obvious in modern day organized crime news. It’s not the optimistic vision of Latin America that I prefer, but anyone who writes a near-daily blog for nine years has to acknowledge that there is a bit of Macondo across the entire region.
  2. BBC has one of the better recent articles written on Cuba's internet and information access in the wake of the ZunZuneo scandal.

    The article describes some of the basic challenges, including the fact that access to even a heavily restricted internet service costs more than a typical Cuban worker can make. It also outlines some of the ways Cubans work to get around the system, paying for black market dial-up connections, buying data via usb and offline smart phone apps, and finding "guerrilla wifi" connections that draw a crowd of people trying to connect. One of the big takeaways is the importance of email, as many people can access and communicate through email when they can't or can't afford to do other things online.

    For those who are participating in building hardware or apps to help the hemisphere's citizens connect online, understanding how people in Cuba currently get around restrictions can be useful in building something that will be workable there.

    The article credits the recent Cuba-Venezuela internet connection as expanding access on the island. That is partially true, but we also know that the connection is far from being used to its full potential. The government continues to censor and throttle internet use and they prioritize bandwidth for voice (because the Cuban phone service brings in big money) and government communications rather than giving even more access to the island's citizens. There are plenty of foreign companies that would love to enter the Cuban market and provide more phone and internet service. US companies are partially hampered by the embargo, but it's the Cuban government's own restrictions that are the main force keeping the country from joining the rest of the world in getting online.
  3. I briefly watched part of the Venezuela dialogue last night and then caught up on the rest via blogs (WOLA, CC) and Twitter. The first thing that struck me upon watching the images on television was that few if any women or youth were invited.

    I never got the complete headcount, but it appears that out of about 25 people seated at the table, only three were women. One of those women was Colombia Foreign Minister Holguin, one of the UNASUR mediators.

    Of the 23 people who spoke during the five hour dialogue, only one was a woman: PSUV Congressional Deputy Blanca Eekhout spoke for about 10 minutes. While recognizing that the opposition's top female politician, Maria Corina Machado, boycotted these talks, it's a stunning lack of diversity that leads the MUD to send 11 men and zero women to the dialogue table and the government to send nine men and one woman.

    I'll also note that half of Venezuela's population (including a majority of protesters) is under the age of 30 and I'm fairly certain not a single person who spoke last night was under the age of 40.

    "Who represents?" That's what I wrote on Wednesday when I said that Venezuela's political class doesn't do a good job representing the diversity of the country's viewpoints. That lack of representation was on display in terms of both political ideology and demographics at last night's dialogue.
  4. The most important Venezuela headlines this week include the word "dialogue." After two months of protesting, government and opposition leaders may finally sit down and talk to one and other.

    The journalists and the analysts who write about Venezuela like any development that allows them to get back to the standard narrative: Chavistas vs opposition. It's a narrative we all know well and we're all quite comfortable with after 15 years of talking about its ups and downs. Maduro and Capriles are going to sit down and chat? Great, I can write an easy news article, opinion column or blog post about that.

    To the extent analysts write outside of that box, it's to talk about internal leadership disputes. What if Maduro disagrees with Cabello? Or Capriles with Machado? In the end, fewer than 10 politicians ever matter in any analysis of Venezuelan politics.

    Yet, we know that's wrong. In nearly every credible poll for the past eight years, there has been a huge presence of ni-ni's, people in Venezuela who don't feel represented by either side of the political spectrum. That number of people completely disillusioned by the country's political leaders has often been over 30% (one Datanalisis poll in 2008 placed it at 46%), and that's just among people who choose to respond to polls. This isn't a country divided 50-50 (or 51-49). It's a country divided closer to 33-33-33 on any given day and the ni-nis may be the closest to a majority.

    If you dig deeper into the recent poll numbers, you'll see neither the government nor the opposition political leaders are in particularly strong positions with their bases. Many voters who identify as Chavistas are disappointed and even angry about how the government is managing the economy and security. Many voters who identify as members of the opposition question their leadership's tactics and strategies.

    If Venezuelan citizens started to rise up against the system as a whole, not just opposition supporters against the government, but Venezuelan citizens against both the government and opposition political leaders that have paralyzed the country, the signs would not be obvious. In Brazil last year, we saw citizens rise up and protest independent of traditional political parties and social movements. We may be seeing a version of that same anti-system protest in Venezuela, but have a hard time seeing outside the government vs opposition narrative that pervades every single analysis and news article on Venezuela.

    Who represents Venezuela's citizens at a dialogue between the government and opposition? I'm sure the government and opposition political leaders who sit down at the table will claim to represent their "half" of the country, but you should know by now that it's far from the truth. Who represents the ni-ni? Who represents the poor Chavista who is angry about food shortages? Who represents the opposition-leaning voter who is scared of the violent thugs manning the local guarimba? Who represents the student protester who has a brother in the military or that soldier who is tired of repressing protesters? Who represents, who represents, who represents? I could go on for paragraphs.

    To some extent, this is true in any country in the hemisphere including Brazil and the United States. You can always find voters and citizens who aren't fully represented by the political system. But Venezuela faces a bigger challenge than those other countries given the divide between the political narrative and the reality on the ground. The polarization of the country's politics means that people have been forced to choose sides or not participate at all. Neither Maduro nor Capriles are suggesting that the dialogue include someone to represent the ni-nis, the disaffected Chavistas, the moderate opposition or the swing voters, even if that broad dialogue would be more representative of society.

    Venezuela doesn't just need a dialogue in which political leaders talk with each other. Venezuela's political leaders need to have a dialogue with the rest of the population.

    Capriles had it right in a speech he gave early on in the protests: the opposition needs to get out to the barrios and talk with that base of Chavista supporters. That's not just to convince them that their government is failing them, but to also listen to their concerns and start addressing them in the opposition political platform.

    For Maduro's part, he needs to recognize that his opposition is not just some 1% elite economic group. There are a fair number of middle class and even poor, many who come from households that once supported Hugo Chavez, that disagree with the direction of his government. Many of the protesters and many of the non-protesting but angry citizens in poorer neighborhoods have "legitimate concerns," as the president recently wrote in the NYT, and the government should have a dialogue with them.

    It's good news that Venezuela's government and opposition political leaders are finally willing to sit down and talk to each other, but they also need to speak with and listen to the broad spectrum of citizens in the country. Otherwise, it's a political system that will collapse.
  5. USAID has said that they are “proud” of the ZunZuneo program and what it accomplished. They stated in a recent blog post, “a key goal of USAID’s Cuba program is to break the “information blockade” or promote “information sharing” amongst Cubans and that assistance will include the use or promotion of new “technologies” and/or “new media” to achieve its goals." Those were the values behind ZunZuneo, even if the implementation of the specific program was far from ideal and I don’t think those free speech efforts should apply only to Cuba.

    I was a few hundred words into writing another blog post on ZunZuneo when I realized everything I was writing was looking backward at a program that is already shut down. Too much US policy debate about Cuba looks backward. So instead of criticizing or defending a program that is done and over with, let’s look at a question that matters: what now? Specifically, how do we design a program better than ZunZuneo to help people in Cuba and across this hemisphere communicate.

    If USAID is proud of ZunZuneo and if they think it was a good idea, perhaps they should embrace the media coverage and controversy and use it to get something good accomplished. They could build a ZunZuneo 2.0, this time transparently, collaboratively and learning from the good and bad of their previous effort. USAID has their Global Development Lab that uses grand challenges and grants to incubate new technology and a public ZunZuneo 2.0 would fit their goals.

    Of course, even if USAID doesn’t want to back a new ZunZuneo effort (I haven’t spoken with them), it doesn’t mean the goals can’t be picked up by others.

    As stated in my previous post, I believe the policy goal should be a hemisphere in which people can communicate freely and openly without government restrictions. Three key challenges exist to connecting more people online so they can communicate around the hemisphere: 1) Repressive government censorship, 2) Violent threats and attacks against journalists and citizens by state and non-state actors, 3) Poverty and poor telecommunications infrastructure which exacerbates a digital divide.

    Welcome to an open-source ZunZuneo challenge. If you’re reading this blog post, you know what happened with USAID’s program in Cuba. You have your own vision of where it went wrong. So, design and build it better. Build it so it would work in Cuba and across the entire hemisphere. Build it to help people connect and communicate in spite of the challenges they face.

    What is “it”? That is still up for debate. “It” is something that can help people who face the three challenges I listed above communicate with each other and publish to the world. There is no reason this should be limited to the original idea of building a Twitter clone that just works in one country. Think bigger and think about both a hardware and a software component. It should work and be useful in downtown Havana, rural Guatemala and the favelas of Brazil. It should be a cheap and useful solution to the connectivity challenges that people face.

    I originally drafted a few paragraphs on potential hardware and software ideas, but I'll save that for a future post.

    The most important part is that both the hardware and software side should be open source and transparent. Open source because no one company or government should control it and I think it will be necessary for the technology to spread and adapt. This as the sort of project that could run off a GitHub-style design that would allow people to branch off their own additions and adaptations. Transparent because radical transparency is the best solution to creating a system that users can trust and that can overcome the sorts of governments and criminal groups that could try to repress or abuse this sort of technology. While it's possible USAID should support the development of this technology, much in the same way the State Department has supported Tor, they shouldn’t try to control it.

    In the end, whatever new products are created probably won’t keep the ZunZuneo brand name. But the ZZ program in Cuba is what inspired me to post this, so I’m sticking with the challenge name for now.

    I encourage readers to copy, steal and/or modify the ideas in this post as they’d like. I’m open to collaboration and criticisms, but if you’re going to list a roadblock to what I’ve written above (won’t a government just confiscate all the hardware? Won’t local telecoms fight back against any platform that allows open access and harms their profits?), I’d encourage you to then think about how to solve that challenge. This is the sort of project that should be open to any government, private sector, NGO, hacker or individual blogger who would like to help. I know there are others already working on similar austere environment connection challenges, and my first goal is to figure out what is already out there and what other successes and mistakes have been made.

    It’s easy to criticize; it’s harder to build. So, instead of focusing on what ZunZuneo got wrong, think about how you can do it better. And then help build it.
  6. Easy win. With Johnny Araya dropping out of the campaign, Luis Guillermo Solis’s biggest challenge was getting enough votes that his win looked legitimate and gave him some momentum. He did that. Solis won 1.2 million votes, 78% of the vote and a win in every province in the country. The 57% voter turnout was low for a Costa Rican election, but pretty good for an election in which only one candidate was running.

    An anti-PLN mandate. To be clear, winning 78% of the vote was less about Solis’s and the PAC’s platform than it was a vote against the current administration and its policies. Costa Rican voters felt the PLN under President Chinchilla failed to deliver on economic or security issues. Corruption allegations and an extremely poor campaign by Araya also hit the party still controlled by former President Arias. Solis should be proud of his big win, but he should not misinterpret it as a clear mandate for all of his policies. The new president needs to build a broad coalition and respect the views of the wide political spectrum of voters who voted for him because they voted against Araya and the PLN.

    The boring economic stuff. With a mandate for “change” from the current administration, where is Solis likely to focus his first 100 days? According to previous interviews, he’s going to work on fiscal reform, taxes, fixing transportation infrastructure contracts and getting loans to small businesses. It’s not exactly a flashy and populist agenda that will bring supporters and opponents to the streets. Solis appears determined to take on some of the boring nuts and bolts of the economic system in Costa Rica, trying to improve small business and reduce inequality while keeping the government budget solvent. One big question is how long voters will give his administration before they expect to see results, particularly as Solis has been the obvious winner of the election for several weeks and has had plenty of time to prepare a transition.

    Loyal opposition. The PAC only has 13 seats out of 57 in the Congress. The PLN, with 18 seats, has promised that they will work with the new president where they can. However, one of Solis’s big campaign promises was to make the government more transparent and open up information about scandals from recent administrations. It is hard to see the PLN working with the new government if the new government is dropping scandals on them and blaming the past administration for things that are wrong. That will make Solis’s legislative coalition building difficult.

    The international angle. Costa Rica currently holds the CELAC presidency and will host the regional meeting in early 2015. Costa Rica is also on a track to join the Pacific Alliance, should the president-elect wish to continue down that path. The Costa Rican campaign was fought largely on domestic issues, but Solis has an opportunity in the coming months to make a big regional splash if he chooses. Then again, just getting relations within Central America, particularly with Nicaragua, back on track will be challenging enough.
  7. Sergio Cabral, the governor of Rio de Janeiro, resigned his post yesterday (WSJ, Estadao). Cabral was fairly popular in his first term, improving the state's security and helping secure the Olympic bid. He was reelected in 2010 and still had majority support according to polls in 2011.

    However, Cabral saw his popularity drop and remain low following a series of scandals and last year's protests. Protesters in Rio made their complaints about Cabral and their demands for his resignation a significant part of the local movement. He currently polls around 20% approval.

    Cabral plans to run in the legislative elections later this year, but his resignation amid scandal and low popularity is a serious fall for someone once viewed as a rising political star.

    With 16 million people, the state of Rio de Janeiro is more populous than any country in Central America or the Caribbean.
  8. Receiving a lot of attention today is the AP’s investigation into ZunZuneo, a cell-phone based social media service in Cuba that was secretly created and backed by USAID. The service, which maxed out around 40,000 users in 2010, let people share information, provided some basic news, and did polling of its users. Though the platform attempted to stay under the radar of the Cuban government censors, sources in the article as well as my own sources indicate that the Cuban government eventually did work to shut it down. The program also ran out of funding as well as failed to gain support in the US Congress.

    USAID’s goal of helping Cubans communicate with each other is worthwhile. The right to communicate is a fundamental human and democratic right. The US government should promote programs and technology that help connect citizens online, particularly those at the economic and political margins (in fact, USAID is launching Global Development Lab today to bring more innovation to its efforts). We should be in favor of anything that assists civil society in communicating and prevents governments from censoring. As I’ve written previously, our support for greater and more open internet connectivity and communications should not just be in Cuba, but in every country in this hemisphere from Canada to Argentina and including inside the US.

    Where this ZunZuneo program went too far was in the proposal, even before its creation, that the ZZ platform could or should be used to trigger smart mobs or even a “Cuban Spring.” That could be a great selling point for getting funding with a US government program, but if you’re building a social media platform with the end goal of revolution, you’re probably missing the more mundane communications that let networks like Twitter succeed. Communications efforts don’t need to be revolutionary to be effective. Build something that lets people communicate freely and then let them decide whether they’ll post about their lunch, a concert, their support of the government or an anti-government protest.

    If USAID or other US government agencies want to promote or fund these sorts of communications networks, they should do it for the sake of communications being a fundamental democratic right, not for their potential for regime change.

    The other big takeaway from this article is that, while the Cuban government engages in serious censorship of its own population, another of the biggest obstacles to building a technology platform that can help Cubans communicate remains the US embargo. US businesses can’t operate in Cuba the way they do in other countries. Technology businesses, in particular, face difficult restrictions.

    A business in Silicon Valley wouldn’t be legally allowed to operate the way USAID did via ZunZuneo. It wouldn’t be allowed to use US money and bank accounts to pay the fees to Cuban government accounts. It could need (and possibly be rejected for) special licenses to export its technology to Cuba. For example, MOOC’s like Coursera which would provide important outside information to Cuban citizens have been threatened with embargo sanctions if they allow their content to spread to Cuba. That’s ridiculous. US policy should be in favor of the free spread of information and export restrictions should be rarely used, certainly not in the case of education materials.

    Contrast ZunZuneo or Coursera’s recent experience in Cuba with Zello, a smart-phone app designed as an internet based radio platform which allows one-to-many or many-to-many voice communications. Zello wasn’t created to help protests, but it has been instrumental in helping Venezuelans get around their own government censorship and organize. When the Maduro government attempted to block Zello from the internet in Venezuela, the app makers rewrote their platform to work in under 48 hours. Similarly, Twitter worked to get their platform around Venezuela government censorship that briefly blocked images.That is flexibility that government programs rarely show. Zello’s and Twitter's actions in helping Venezuelans communicate would likely be restricted or slowed by any limitations or sanctions on technology exports, as currently exist with the Cuba embargo and which some in Congress have suggested for Venezuela.

    A majority of social media networks and technology startups fail. The reason large companies like Google or Twitter can rise up and be influential is that they exist in a market place where numerous other companies, like Coursera and Zello, are innovating, operating and allowed to take big risks and potentially fail. One big irony is that, because the embargo distorts the market of who can operate in Cuba, USAID attempted to use a centrally-planned, non-transparent, government-funded program to take on a central-planned, non-transparent communist government. Cuba will not be improved by fighting central planning with central planning.

    Dropping the embargo would encourage market forces to create social networks and other technologies that would help Cubans communicate. Companies would still face numerous challenges operating in Cuba including Castro government censorship efforts, but a shift in US embargo policy would be far more effective at promoting new communications platforms and technologies on the island than a covert US government program. The US wouldn’t control those platforms nor gain the same intelligence off of it as it did Zunzuneo. However, dropping the embargo would place the US closer to the correct end goal: a hemisphere in which people can communicate freely and openly without government restrictions.
  9. While President Bachelet ended her previous term in office with high approval ratings, there were some criticisms that she did not take the earthquake in February 2010 seriously enough. Recovery efforts were slowed due to the ongoing political transition to the new administration. As she left office only a two weeks later, she never faced the full consequences of that previous event.

    Last night's earthquake in northern Chile appears to have been far less destructive than the one on 27 February 2010. Very few died. The damage that occurred should be repairable. Though the earthquakes, power outages, evacuations and aftershocks are disrupting the region, most people affected should be able to return to their homes relatively quickly. All of that is positive news.

    However, with her new administration in office less than a month and attempting to juggle multiple policy priorities to meet her 100 day promises, Bachelet cannot afford to take this event as anything less than a political crisis. In a previous post, I discussed whether or not the first 100 day agenda was overrated in terms of importance to long term political success and public opinion. This earthquake changes that analysis. Bachelet's advisors know that her management of this earthquake's rescue, recovery and reconstruction efforts early in the term may determine whether or not her other policy priorities are passed by the Chilean Congress.

    We should all be grateful that this 8.2 earthquake appears to be more of a political crisis than a humanitarian one. This earthquake was damaging enough to be politically difficult but not so destructive that it will create a "rally around the flag" public opinion event. How Bachelet handles the earthquake recovery over the next month may very well impact her ability to get everything else on her agenda accomplished in the coming year. It may seem silly to tie the potential for education reform or improved tax policy to whether earthquake reconstruction goes well, but politics is sometimes a silly business.
  10. Venezuela President Maduro plans a nationwide culling of birds to stop opposition “coup-plotters” from communicating via carrier pigeon. According to an advanced copy of Maduro’s speech scheduled for today, 1 April, the president will say,  “No podemos permitir que ellos planean un golpe por las palomas fascistas."

    Maduro, who once claimed that Chavez’s spirit spoke to him through a little bird, now thinks the birds have joined the other side.

    With Twitter images and several key opposition-leaning websites occasionally blocked in Venezuela, the government believes the opposition will use carrier pigeons as one of several methods to communicate with each other and transfer messages and photos abroad. A close aide to Maduro said that Venezuelan intelligence, supported by Cuban advisors, also identified carrier pigeons as a potential method for military units to communicate now that they have had their radios blocked from speaking to each other.

    The plans to combat the potential threat include using the armed colectivos who will chase them down via motorcycle plus a long-term training of “Bolivarian hawks” that can hunt the pigeons out of the air. The government does not believe killing the messenger birds will have a significant environmental impact on the country.

    While the Venezuelan opposition refused to comment on the report, the potential for pro-democracy pigeons has gained some support among the exile community in Florida. US Representative Iliana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has added a new article to her Venezuelan sanctions bill to provide the opposition with funding for training, bird feed and small pieces of paper that can be tied to the birds’ legs.

    UPDATE: It's always good to be skeptical about everything you read online, but especially on 1 April.