1. The 22 page, 94 point CELAC declaration is here.

    There is precisely one point that matters: Point 18 reads "Aprobar el Plan de Seguridad Alimentaria, Nutrición y Erradicación del Hambre 2025 de la CELAC."

    CELAC countries approved a plan to end hunger in Latin America and the Caribbean by 2025. It is the only time in the document they use the term "aprobar" or approve, to show a new agenda item that has been agreed to by everyone. It is also a firm, measurable goal for the group. It's a good goal too, one I fully agree with.

    Everything else is fluff. Every other point in that document reiterates or acknowledges previous statements by the group or offers an opinion on an issue over which they have no control and are not committing any resources or effort. They approve of the declarations made at previous meetings and support the holding of future meetings, creating long chains of meetings in which they announce that they approve of each other's meetings.

    To be fair, the vast majority of documents produced at the Summit of the Americas or the OAS General Assemblies have been similarly lacking in content. Very rarely do these major multilateral events produce significant and measurable policy items. There is a benefit to getting presidents in the same room to talk, even if they don't agree to anything specific or new. The real work of these multilateral organizations, to the extent anything is accomplished, is done at a lower level than the symbolic presidential meetings. But it's frustrating to read.

    You can also read the CELAC action plan document and the other 26 special declarations made at the event here. Once again, there are very few items for actual action. There are some policy statements that are made at nearly every multilateral event (support for Colombia's peace process, support for Argentina's claim on the Malvinas), but no resources or significant policy announcements have been made that would require countries to act. No goals have been set where the success or failure of the group can be measured.

    The statement on climate change was particularly disappointing. While highlighted as one of the focuses for CELAC in this conference and this year, the statement calls for developed countries to do more while failing to call on region to do anything. The statement acts as if Latin America and the Caribbean are just waiting on the developed world, not taking any actions internally. The statement also adopts some old language that gives countries like China and India a pass for their role in climate change, which is politically convenient for countries like Costa Rica and Ecuador, but doesn't help the reality of getting an effective global multilateral agreement done.

    The statement on Internet governance is confusing. On one hand, the statement announces regional support for net neutrality, supports the right to privacy, promotes greater connectivity and technology infrastructure and appears to support a multistakeholder model for internet governance (which is opposed by China and Russia). All good things. On the other hand, it says internet usage must respect state sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs, which appears to be a nod of support to the countries in the region that want to increase censorship and domestic spying on opposition.

    So CELAC was largely style over substance. Yet, there are things to read in that style. What took up the attention of CELAC's meeting in Costa Rica?

    There were multiple statements on US-Cuba relations (CELAC thinks the US needs to drop the embargo, the designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, and give back Gitmo). CELAC also disapproved of recent US sanctions on Venezuela. There was a token statement on Puerto Rico, precipitated by Nicaragua President Ortega forcing the issue and attempting to give time to a Puerto Rican independence activist, which forced the entire presidential discussion time to be shut down. Overall, that's a lot of time and ink spent on the United States for a group that is supposed to not include the United States.

    Along with those criticisms of the US, the leaders and international positions of ALBA are also overrepresented. With Ecuador President Correa taking the presidency of CELAC for the coming year, attention on him is understandable. However, the focus on Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua and the attention those leaders and their statements receive is a skewed priority set for the region. Bolivia is the frontrunner to lead CELAC in 2018 and will be the fourth ALBA member in eight years to lead the organization (after Venezuela, Cuba and Ecuador).

    If ALBA countries and criticism of the US are overrepresented, then what is underrepresented?

    CELAC's consensus model means there were no discussions of some of the high-profile and pressing controversies in the region. Venezuela's ongoing economic and political problems, the region's most likely crisis area over the coming 12 months, was ignored. So were discussions about the disappeared 43 students in Mexico, the ongoing human rights problems in Central America, the debate over the Nicaragua canal, censorship in Ecuador, Guyana's political crisis, the death of Alberto Nisman in Argentina or the overall militarization of security across numerous countries.

    Surprisingly very little time is spent on issues concerning Mexico and Brazil (which are combined approximately 50% of the population, 60% of the economy of CELAC, by far the two most important countries of the region). Mexico President Peña Nieto didn't show up to the meeting and there was no mention of Mexico, either good or bad, in the debates or in the documents (as I noted on Twitter, Puerto Rico received two mentions in the final document while Mexico received zero). Brazil President Rousseff was there, but didn't say or do anything notable. There are a few places in the final documents where Brazil's subtle foreign policy hand appears to have moved things, but it was mostly a non-player for the event.

    Central America's northern triangle received minimal attention. CELAC couldn't even be bothered to pass a resolution supporting the recent document put together by the Northern Triangle to improve security.

    The Caribbean, once again, got the short end of the stick. Even though the 15 members of Caricom are almost half of CELAC's 33 total membership, they get minimal mention or attention outside of Cuba. There was a brief and weak declaration of support for Haiti's government. Caribbean-specific concerns regarding climate change and energy security were brushed over. Most of the CELAC documents are only available in Spanish even though English is the primary language of 12 of the member states. Hopefully the Caribbean will get more attention in 2016-17 when the Dominican Republic has the presidency of the organization.
  2. As announced via Vice President Biden's op-ed in the New York Times, the Obama administration will request one billion dollars in aid for Central America, about three times the amount of aid given in 2014.

    According to the White House fact sheet, over $400 million will go to economic assistance, over $300 million to security efforts under CARSI and nearly $250 million to improved governance.

    Additional thoughts:

    1. This is going to be a hard sell in Congress. A combination of liberals who are concerned about human rights and trade issues and tea party activists who hate all foreign aid are likely to oppose some or all of this aid package. This is an aid package that will need to bridge a very polarized Congress to find a centrist coalition to pass. Yet, if the US is going to call for "political will" from Central American leaders, then the US Congress needs to show a bit of political leadership itself.

    2. The 1,300 word fact sheet from the White House doesn't use the word "drug" once. Among the mistakes of Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative were their overwhelming focus on counter-narcotics. This proposed Central America aid package is about economic development, good governance and security, not some mythical drug war that can't be won. The fact sheet even says the security portion of the funds will "prioritize the crimes of most concern to Central American citizens: gang extortion, robbery, and domestic violence." That's a fantastic policy shift that wasn't announced by the Obama administration, but makes success much more likely.

    3. This aid package includes money for clean energy infrastructure and electrical integration, educational and vocational training for at-risk youth, building investigative and prosecutorial capacity, and civil society organizations to monitor corruption and serve as watchdogs against government abuses. There are lots of details yet to be released, but there are some interesting areas for funding here that certainly need more investment.

    4. Biden's op-ed highlights some of the steps that Central American governments have already taken along with the fact they need to do more. This US assistance package can only succeed if Central America, like Colombia, collects more in taxes and invests in their own success.

    5. Executive orders on immigration, a major change in Cuba policy, the Caribbean energy summit, and now a billion dollar Central America aid package. President Obama is making bold and positive changes in US policy towards Latin America in the lead-up to this year's Summit of the Americas.

    6. "I think the challenges in the the Northern Triangle of Central America are big and important enough that the US government should spend at least $1 billion dollars trying to help the region this year." I wrote those words six months ago. I still believe it.
  3. Last June I gave credit to President Chavez for having reduced poverty between 1998 and 2006, but then wrote: "The Chavistas really haven't done much since 2007. Since Hugo Chavez won his 2006 reelection campaign, the poverty rate has essentially sat still, constantly between 25% and 30%..."

    Here's the graph:

    While Chavez was able to at least maintain lower poverty rates, President Maduro's policies have been a huge step backwards in this area, once a key point of pride for Chavez and his supporters. From 2012 to 2013, poverty in Venezuela increased from 25% to 32%. Extreme poverty increased from 7% to almost 10%. Those are very large increases, even as the rest of South America maintained or lowered their poverty rate during that same year.

    Here's the chart from ECLAC (h/t Caracas Chronicles):

    Poverty almost certainly increased in 2014 as well, given the drop in oil prices, the full year recession, high inflation, currency controls, food shortages, and reported cuts in government subsidies for missions. Though those cuts in social services are publicly denied, people working at the missions and receiving those subsidies claim they aren't getting the same levels of support in recent months, a major blow as poverty levels rise.

    There are plenty of complex reasons for this increase in Venezuelan poverty rates. Opponents of Chavismo would say that this was an inevitable outcome of Chavez's policies, that poverty reduced only because of the luck of high oil prices. That's arguable.

    The basic narrative from the data, the one that many Venezuelans outside the traditional opposition can agree on, is that Chavez reduced poverty then maintained those reductions. Maduro's mismanagement of the economy and government is now destroying one of the positive legacies of Chavez's time in power. It's a main reason that Maduro's approval rate is down near 20% and many former Chavistas are now opposed to the current government.

    UPDATE: One other thing I noted on Twitter: Look at Colombia's numbers. Colombia had a significant drop in poverty from 2005 to 2013. With Venezuela's increase in poverty rates under President Maduro, Colombia had lower poverty rates than Venezuela in 2013. Colombia accomplished those poverty drops without the significant social welfare programs implemented by Chavez.

    Now Colombia, like Venezuela, probably got hit in 2014 by a number of factors including oil prices, a currency fall, slower than expected economic growth and a neighbor with its economy collapsing. Colombia's social safety net is allegedly weaker than Venezuela's or Brazil's or Chile's. From a comparative perspective, it will be interesting to see which country's poverty rates were hit harder in 2014.
  4. When Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found dead in his apartment, the reaction of many people in Argentina was to believe that it was not a suicide.

    In the hours following the news breaking, Argentina President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner posted on social media that it was a suicide. Within days, she had changed her mind and said that she was certain that Nisman had not killed himself voluntarily. Why the shift?

    Kirchner understands that, as I wrote last Monday, "this is the sort of situation that conspiracy theories are made of." She is politically savvy enough to know that in the short term it is easier to counter the conspiracies that her government was behind Nisman's murder with even crazier conspiracies that rogue intelligence agents were using Nisman to file his report and now wanted him gone. The conspiracy appeals to her political base and gets more coverage, even if it isn't based in fact any more than the anti-government conspiracies that have been offered.

    Meanwhile, the journalist who broke the story of Nisman's death has fled the country. While it's impossible to verify his claims that he was being followed or indirectly threatened, it is incredibly weird that government sources are posting information about this individual journalist's travel plans. The fact the Kirchner government is posting personal travel information about a journalist is a violation of his privacy, a confirmation that they are tracking him and an implicit threat to other journalists covering the case.

  5. Guyana President Ramotar announced that general and regional elections will take place on 11 May of this year. International observers will be invited. While it doesn't end the constitutional crisis and political standoff, it does move the process forward.

    The US, Canada and the UK published a joint statement praising the announcement of elections and calling on Guyana to improve its election conditions including allowing all parties access to the media. It was the first official statement made by the US government on Guyana's democracy since the prorogue of parliament last year. Brazil and Caricom remain silent.

    There isn't much US media coverage of Guyana politics, so it was good to see Girish Gupta writing for the New York Times about the Alliance for Change party cutting across ethnic lines. If the AFC gains on this election from the 2011 results, it could signal a real shift in the countries politics.

    The big question at the moment is how the AFC and APNU, the main opposition party, will cooperate or not during this election. Defeating Ramotar and the PPP will require an alliance between the two parties. However, the AFC has indicated that they want to lead the alliance while the APNU clearly sees David Granger as the most viable presidential candidate. That negotiation between the two parties is ongoing.
  6. Place on your reading list for today or this weekend the 2015 annual letter from Bill and Melinda Gates. It’s an optimistic view that the world can reduce extreme poverty and its consequences over the next 15 years.

    While the letter focuses more on Africa than Latin America (for good reason), at least two facts stood out that are very relevant to the region.

    In Latin America, the number of deaths of children under five years old dropped from 54 per 1,000 in 1990 to 18 per 1,000 in 2013. That's a real success story. The Gates Foundation has set a goal to half the number of deaths again by 2030.

    "By 2030, 2 billion people who don't have a bank account today will be storing money and making payment with their phones. And by then, mobile money providers will be offering the full range of financial services, from interest-bearing savings accounts to credit to insurance.” There is a huge demand for banking services among the poor and lower middle class in Latin America that is not being met by the major financial institutions. Even among the poorest, the region has some very high rates of cell phone usage. A service like Kenya’s M-Pesa or Bangladesh’s bKash could do quite well if it could set up across multiple countries and get past regulatory hurdles.

    They end the letter by calling on people to join with Global Citizen and work to push for ambitious Millennium Development Goals and to hold leaders around the world accountable to meeting those goals. Whether or not you join the website, pushing politicians to pay more attention to poverty reduction is a worthwhile goal.
  7. Miami Herald:
    With foreign diplomats looking on, an uneasy Haitian President Michel Martelly looked into the television cameras and in a solemn address to the nation, affirmed his support for credible and fair elections even as he assumed “responsibility” for the political stalemate that has plunged Haiti deeper into turmoil. 
    It was an about face for a man who, until that TV address on Friday, blamed Haiti’s fractured opposition for a brewing political crisis that resulted with last week’s dissolution of parliament. 
    “Some 28 years after the adoption of the Constitution in March 1987, we still struggle to put in place all the institutions that our fundamental Charter had planned,” Martelly acknowledged. “Today 44 months after my installation... we must humbly admit our weaknesses and our collective mistakes, arising from old demons of mistrust, divisions and intolerance that still cross our minds after more than 200 years.”
    Go read the whole article, which is a good summary of the current political mess in Haiti.

    Haiti's opposition wants to force Martelly out of power. They want domestic or international pressure to force his resignation or they want a protest movement or coup to push him out the door.

    In order to reach that goal, in a move that is either cunningly brilliant or terribly stupid (probably the latter), the opposition ran out the clock on the legislative term without voting on new elections. With the legislature's term completed and no new elections scheduled, Martelly obtained full power by decree with no legislative checks in place. This allows his opposition to cynically portray Martelly as a dictator. Additionally, this means the success or failure of Haiti rests entirely on the president's shoulders.

    There have been leaders in Haiti's history, not to mention elsewhere in the hemisphere and world, who would have gladly taken the absolute governing power and ran with it. Handed complete control of the country with no opposition checks, there is certainly a temptation to try to rule by decree for a year and improve the country without that annoying opposition standing in the way and creating political gridlock at every step.

    Martelly, to his credit, appears to be avoiding that temptation and political trap. He pushed forward with a new cabinet that grants some limited concessions to opponents without giving up significant power that he won legitimately in elections. He has stuck with his promise to name former Port-au-Prince Mayor Evans Paul as his prime minister even though that concession did not secure a last-minute legislative deal. More importantly, he is going to use his decree authority to finally name an electoral council and conduct new legislative and municipal elections that have been opposed by the opposition and are years overdue. The fact that the international community is watching this crisis carefully and hedging their support of Martelly on his planning of elections is certainly playing a role in keeping him from abusing his new decree authority.

    Martelly isn't a saint. The opposition is probably correct that his new cabinet has some bad characters in it and the president is maneuvering to maintain political control and influence once his term is up (what politician doesn't?). However, the president does deserve credit for, so far, managing a true political and constitutional crisis about as well as anyone could hope. Handed a stubborn opposition and a potentially destabilizing political trap, Martelly has made a number of correct moves to prevent the country from falling into further instability.
  8. Alberto Nisman was found dead in his apartment hours before he was supposed to testify in front of Argentina's Congress. His death appears to be a suicide, with the apartment locked from the inside and a single bullet casing from a .22 and his firearm found beside him.

    Over the past week, Nisman, a federal prosecutor, announced serious allegations that President Kirchner and her government had covered up aspects of Iran's role in the AMIA bombing in 1994. He claimed to have evidence that included recordings of government officials. He also said he and his family had received death threats and implied that the Kirchner government may attempt to kill him to prevent him from prosecuting the coverup. That same government is now in the process of investigating his death, which will take at least several days.

    Obviously, this is the sort of situation that conspiracy theories are made of.

    For me, the whole situation is reminiscent of the 2009 Rosenberg murder in Guatemala. The attorney had recorded a video message claiming the president was targeting him for death. For a while, it appeared the government of President Colom was at risk of falling due to the scandal. A lengthy investigation by the UN-backed CICIG revealed that Rosenberg had actually orchestrated his own murder. As unbelievable as that conclusion was, the presence of a respected international group that presented unbiased evidence helped resolve the mystery and stabilize the country.

    There is no CICIG-like group in Argentina. The Kirchner government will argue that their institutions are much stronger and more respected than Guatemala's and that any sort of independent investigation is unnecessary.

    Unfortunately, even if Argentina's institutions are stronger, in the highly politicized environment in which Nisman was making bold claims of government coverups, a large portion of the population is unlikely to believe the government's report on his death.

    The Kirchner government and the Argentine Congress should appoint a group of independent investigators that include experts, whether domestic or foreign, who are outside the Kirchner's political circle. That group should go through the evidence and allow it to lead to conclusions, whatever they are. Without an independent investigation, the mystery and political controversy of this Nisman case, like the AMIA bombings themselves, will hang over Argentine politics for years to come.
  9. A general rule on this blog is that I try to positively shape media coverage of the region, not complain about the media coverage and lack thereof. I should not spend time and digital ink complaining that x issue doesn’t receive enough coverage if I haven’t done enough to write about it myself. If I think a narrative about the region is wrong, I should try to write the narrative I think is correct rather than criticize what’s been written by others.

    I’m setting that rule aside for a day because Al Jazeera’s AJ Stream has asked people to write about media coverage of the region and the stories that I think need more attention. I’ll be participating in a Twitter chat this morning about the subject with the hashtag #CharlaEditorial. However, it’s useful to to set down a longer train of thoughts where I’m not limited to 140 characters per post.

    As is true in other parts of the world, too often the media rush to the same story. Fifty media outlets covering the same speech, press conference or controversy never provide 50 useful and unique points of view.

    It’s not just journalists that are guilty of that trend. Think tanks, prominent pundits and less-known bloggers (guilty as charged) too often play to the media interest, providing yet another quote on the issues journalists are most likely to cover rather than trying to focus the attention on the issues they think are most worthy of coverage.

    Journalists should accept that they won’t cover everything and that they add the most value in either covering the uncovered story or finding a new and different angle to a story that is otherwise stuck in the same narrative. Analysts should shape the narrative of what’s important, not have their analyses shaped by what’s most likely to be quoted by the New York Times or El Pais.

    Media coverage reflects the debate among the political and business elites of the region as well as the analysts who follow the region in Latin America and around the world. At times, that debate does not reflect the concerns of the general population. Too often, that political and pundit elite is still debating events from decades past.

    The region’s youthful population and the issues that matter to them today are underrepresented in politics, economics and media coverage. The numbers vary by country, but it’s generally fair to say there is a significant youth bubble in Latin America. A majority of the region’s citizens and a near majority of its voters were not politically or economically active, many not born yet, when some of the defining events of the second half of the 20th century occurred. Over 90% of Cubans were not born when the Cuban revolution occurred. A majority of Guatemalans and Chileans were not alive when Rios Montt led a genocide and Pinochet disappeared his opponents. Many of the region’s voters were children when hyperinflation or the Washington Consensus reigned. As I wrote last year, a 20 year old protester in Venezuela today was four years old when Chavez was elected, eight when the 2002 coup occurred.

    I care about history (in fact, I have an undergraduate degree in it). Yet, I also recognize that when Latin American politicians continue to argue over Castro or Allende or Reagan or Pinochet, their political debates aren’t necessarily helping Latin America move forward in the era of cell phones, gang violence and Chinese commodity demand.

    The media reflect those political debates, spending too much time talking about Latin America 30 years ago and not enough time talking about where Latin America will be 30 years from now. The military abuses of the 1970’s and 80’s get more coverage than the potential damage from climate change in the 2040’s, when it should be the other way around. The media should challenge any politician or analyst who isn’t talking about the region’s modern problems and potential solutions for the future. To do that, they should make sure the voices of those citizens in their 30s, 20s and teens get every bit as much coverage as those political leaders shaped one or two generations ago.

    The region needs more investigative journalism. Solid and evidence based journalism can provide an important check and balance in the region’s democracies. Citizens benefit when media shed light and transparency on the the powerful - whether political leaders, business elites or criminal organizations. Latin America is a region that needs corruption and human rights abuses exposed and debated. The powerful are too comfortable and the victims too vulnerable. Journalism should not exist to make those powerful elites happy.

    Unfortunately, that investigative journalism comes with a real cost. The resources required are much higher than other forms of journalism. The pressures against the journalists, including the potential for threats of violence or loss of jobs, cannot be ignored. Many journalists have been killed to forced to flee after good investigative reports. Those brave journalists who do dare to publish evidence of problems in their countries deserve our respect and protection.

    Reporting on corruption is not just the domestic media’s responsibility. Foreign media (and think tanks, NGOs and analysts) should play an active and critical role in the investigative journalism that occurs in the region. They have more resources and can mitigate more threats than many domestic media outlets. They also have higher visibility if things go wrong and greater opportunities for defense or escape when the pressure increases. For many foreign correspondents, the ability to take greater risks in solid investigative journalism and analysis is a privilege and we should utilize it more often.

    I’ll have more later. #CharlaEditorial
  10. NYT:
    Across Brazil, politicians like Mr. Telhada, with backgrounds in law enforcement or the armed forces, have been winning elections. In Congress, about 21 legislators now form what is called the bancada da bala, a “bullet caucus” seeking to bolster gun ownership and repeal laws keeping teenagers from being tried and sentenced as adults, among other conservative measures.
    Hardline policies to crack down on crime have been tried and failed in Latin America over the decades. Still, with rising crime and homicide rates in many countries like Brazil, it isn’t surprising to see politicians turn back to a type of security-focused populism that over-promises the potential gains that they can deliver to citizens. For voters desperate to improve security for themselves and their families, these promises resonate, especially with the perception that current governments have failed to improve the security situation. Like economic populism, voters will be attracted to a political leader who can deliver short-term security gains, even at the cost of cutting corners on human rights or degrading long term security conditions.

    In looking for regional trends, an expanded security populism is one that would not be at all surprising in the coming years. Voters want better security and governments have been slow in delivering results. Politicians who can craft a convincing message on security issues will find support. Obtaining sustainable results will be a different matter.