1. The NYT does a good job with this profile of Miguel Diaz-Canel, who has replaced Raul Castro as Cuba’s undemocratically selected leader. It shows someone who has risen to power by 1) effectively using the tools of power he has had in any position he has been given and 2) showing full loyalty to the current government leadership.

    In many ways, Diaz-Canel’s profile and background is reminiscent of profiles of various recent Chinese leaders’ rise to power in China. In China, like Cuba, the Communist Party system of governance rewards loyalty all the way to the top. But then Chinese leaders get to set their own course once they reach that top level. That second part of the leadership cycle has never been tested before in Cuba’s system.

    That comparison to China’s system should be a warning to Raul Castro’s hopes to maintain influence. Jiang Zemin tried to hold on to power behind the scenes and via his military role in 2002, but was outmaneuvered within a few years by his successor Hu Jintao. China’s current ruler, Xi Jinping, has set a significantly different and more personalist course than his predecessor, something that wasn’t predicted based on his background when he first came to office. In every transition there is speculation that former rulers will be string pullers, then they are suddenly far less relevant.

    Systems that promote based on loyalty can reward those who can best hide their true intentions. The profile of Diaz-Canel is someone who has always shown loyalty to the Castros to the point of it appearing somewhat fake and false. Everyone is asking “Who is Diaz-Canel?” because we all know that the image he has put on for the past decades of his career has been at least somewhat fake, a nod to the Castro brothers that would help him rise. Only now do we get to learn what his real priorities are.
  2. An armed group on the Colombia-Ecuador border kidnapped three journalists, killed them, then kidnapped two more people. Ecuador President Lenin Moreno is furious and his response is impacting several important issues in the country and region.

    First, Moreno withdrew Ecuador’s hosting of the ELN peace talks. Though the ELN are not believed to be involved with the group committing violent acts in Ecuador, they do continue their armed ambushes, bombings and kidnappings in Colombia. The recent events in Ecuador appear to have shifted Ecuador's public opinion and president's opinion on the ELN's activities. Moreno is demanding the ELN cease their “terrorist” activity before talks resume.

    Second, Moreno has also revealed that Ecuador’s government has evidence former President Correa took money from the FARC and that they will investigate the former president over those funds.

    Third, Moreno has ordered a serious military operation into northern Ecuador to take out “Guacho” and the other members of the FARC dissident group that are operating there. He is demanding quick results from his security team.

    Fourth, Ecuador is coordinating the military operation with Colombia to strike at the group. While coordination has occurred in the past, this is likely the biggest and most public combined military operation between the two countries in well over a decade.
  3. Raul Castro steps down this week and a new person will take over as leader of Cuba. This is an undemocratic transition. But even peaceful undemocratic transitions are still points of pressure, tension and potential change in authoritarian regimes. Additionally, it’s good news in that any change away from the personal rule of the Castros is needed for an eventual transition to democracy.

    Raul Castro will likely try to maintain political control and influence, but he should be smart enough to know that former leaders are often disappointed at how few strings they can pull with their chosen successors (just ask Colombia’s Uribe or Ecuador’s Correa).

    More than Castro’s influence, a bigger challenge in Cuba remains the military’s control over various economic sectors. The military has economic incentives to hold back political and economic reforms. Corruption is a real issue in Cuba and unlike much of Latin America, there is no open media to call out the corrupt government and military officials or civil society to pressure for an end to the impunity.

    In spite of the challenges, having a new leader in Cuba is an opportunity for further change. The hemisphere should engage with the Cuban government. Give them space to succeed on economic and political reforms. Judge the new president on what he does from this point forward, not based on the abuses of the past. Engagement, however, does not mean silence. Never quit calling out abuses as they occur, including demanding the release of political prisoners and eventual open elections.

  4. Presidents and prime ministers showed up and spoke.

    It’s perhaps the lowest bar possible, but there is a value in keeping the conversation going in this hemisphere. That is true even at low moments for domestic politics and international relations, even when the hemisphere lacks clear direction and many of the leaders of the largest countries are in lame duck status and/or stuck in controversy and domestic crisis.

    We should want and expect bigger and better things from our hemisphere’s institutions including the OAS and the Summit of the Americas process. Those bigger agenda items won’t happen without the occasional mediocre meeting. Nothing will get done by cancelling future Summits or trying to shuffle up the membership or insisting on ultimatums that demand big action. It’s disappointing when meetings don’t bring results, but we should still value a process that brings countries’ leaders together once every three years to discuss the issues.


    There were two big items on the agenda: anti-corruption initiatives and the crisis in Venezuela. Neither issue is being driven by the leadership of this hemisphere. Rather, on both issues, the presidents and prime ministers of Latin America and the Caribbean are being forced to react to events outside of their control. Unfortunately, the Summit did not help the region gain the initiative on either issue.


    The failure of the US president to show up at the Summit was disappointing.

    Back in 2014, I made the case for President Obama to show up at the Summit in Panama in 2015. There was a debate at the time over whether Obama should show up given Cuba’s presence. Those comments remain true today.
    The Summit provides space for dialogue among the various countries on the sidelines of the event. Even if the entire hemisphere doesn’t agree on a specific issues, those attending can hold bilateral and multilateral meetings to push programs forward and make progress on issues where presidential leadership can make a difference.

    For the US, the Summit is an excellent opportunity to talk with Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and other major hemispheric leaders in a multilateral setting about regional issues rather than bilateral ones. The Panama Summit, like the past two, is also one of the few times that the US president will sit down in a multilateral forum with the leaders of the Caribbean or Central America and hear the concerns of those smaller countries in a multilateral setting where their combined voices carry more weight….

    ...Showing up to the biggest meetings this hemisphere holds is a necessary step to getting any of that agenda accomplished and our attendance shouldn’t even be up for debate.
    The current political situation in the US is a mess. The US president would have probably been a distraction to everything else at the Summit. Still, I think it’s an awful abdication of leadership for the president to have skipped the event. Three years from now the next US president will hopefully make the correct decision and attend.
  5. The Honduran congress is considering a bill that would significantly censor online speech while claiming to enhance cybersecurity. I agree with Human Rights Watch in its analysis of the bill. The law should be completely rejected. There are essentially no redeeming factors within it.

    Perhaps most frustrating is that the bill authorizes the creation of a Centro de Respuesta a Emergencias Informáticas in Honduras. This is supposed to be a CERT, which Honduras definitely needs to protect its critical infrastructure. Even prior to this bill, Honduras signed a $48 million contract with Israel late last year to create a CERT. It would be a good investment if directed at the correct priorities.

    However, the current "cybersecurity" bill defines the CERT as an agency that identifies illegal content and can order local telecoms to remove that content. With this bill, it appears the CERT being planned by Honduras is just a tool for censorship masquerading as a cybersecurity plan.
  6. Colombian authorities arrested FARC leader Jesus Santrich and plan to extradite him to the US over drug trafficking charges. Santrich and his associates negotiated a deal to transport 10,000 kilos of cocaine into the United States. They delivered several kilos of cocaine to buyers in Bogota to prove its purity. Everyone knows this was how the FARC funded themselves when they were an armed combatant group. However, all of Santrich’s drug deals took place in late 2017 and early 2018, well after the peace accords were signed.

    This is a low moment for the peace process and one for which the FARC are 100% to blame. The FARC leadership’s unwillingness to end its criminal operations has been a key concern for both supporters and opponents of the peace process.

    The Santos government and the next administration in Colombia need to make clear that they can separate the reformed fighters from the continued criminals. There are thousands of FARC combatants who have laid down their weapons and deserve an opportunity to reenter society. The crimes of a few greedy FARC leaders who can’t be troubled to end their drug money schemes shouldn’t stop that process, which is beneficial to all of Colombian society. Arresting the FARC leaders whose continued crimes jeopardize the larger peace process is necessary.
  7. Imprisoning a president or former president is often similar to impeachment. In theory, it should be about institutions - either they are guilty or they are not. In reality, it is a political act that depends on the political winds of the moment.

    Looking at the list of other recent LatAm presidents who have been ordered imprisoned for corruption, they have been unpopular at the time of their imprisonment, their political careers and electoral chances over.

    Lula is different. He is popular and leading in the polls. From an institutional point of view, Lula’s popularity shouldn’t matter. The political reality is that his popularity matters deeply. In the coming months, Brazil’s institutions will strain at the pressure of holding a popular former president in their custody.
  8. Costa Rica votes for tolerance. Carlos Alvarado Quesada won 60% of the vote in the second round of Costa Rica’s election. The conventional wisdom is that the vote for Carlos was a massive rejection of the extremist and homophobic views of Fabricio. This is a case where the conventional wisdom is absolutely correct. Costa Rican voters turned out in force to show their opposition to Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz and his policies. As Carlos Alvarado said in his victory speech Costa Rican voters knew that the world was watching this election and that this election would reflect the sort of society Costa Rica wanted to be.

    High turnout. In spite of the election being held on Easter Sunday, turnout was over 65% and null/blank ballots accounted for only about 1% of total votes. For a campaign in which voters appeared largely apathetic and disappointed at their choices for the past few months, the turnout and public celebration over the election was the biggest surprise. It appears that many voters decided in the final weeks of the campaign that they needed to vote because this election mattered.

    Closer than it looks. Alvarado Quesada’s win was by an enormous margin in a hemisphere where tight elections have become the norm, but this election was only a blowout in the final moments. Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz won a plurality in the first round and led the polls for much of the second round. He was only defeated in the final weeks as voters who were undecided or planning not to vote were convinced that it was worth voting against the right-wing politician. Even then, 40% of Costa Ricans still supported Alvarado Muñoz, a not insignificant portion of the population whose views will matter in the legislature and in the next election.

    An incumbent party wins in an anti-incumbent climate. This election became a referendum on the opponent, which allowed the incumbent party to win in a serious anti-incumbent environment. Still, this is an anti-incumbent environment that Alvarado Quesada will need to contend with. People are unhappy with the economy and angry at the corruption of the current and previous governments. That hasn’t changed in spite of this election win.

    Challenges ahead. Alvarado Quesada has already made a call for national unity and offered kind words to his opponent. He is taking the high ground, hoping to rally the population in support to help him build a legislative coalition in the Congress. He should get a honeymoon and brief bump in the polls, but his popularity will swiftly decline if he cannot make progress on an agenda that boosts the economy and shows progress on anti-corruption initiatives. The problem is that those two issues may conflict. Anti-corruption initiatives may require him to target the political power-brokers he needs to pass an agenda in the Congress. Solving that paradox will be an early challenge for the new president.
  9. Sarah Kinosian and I have a new report published by the Inter-American Dialogue related to private security in Latin America and the Montreux Document. There is a summary at InSight Crime and Reuters in Mexico interviewed me.

    While the report focuses on the challenges of private security firms and the regulations and oversight needed to manage the industry, at the most basic level, the private security industry is growing because public security is failing in much of the region. Fixing the challenges of the private security industry won't happen without improving public security, paying police officers fairly, building effective investigative, judicial and penitentiary institutions, and providing the social support necessary to communities that face insecurity.

    There is certainly a role for the private security industry in Latin America's future and a well-regulated PMSC sector can contribute to security rather than create problems. Still, governments must remember that all citizens deserve security, not just those who can pay for it.
  10. Health news out of Venezuela:
    Two years after Latin America was declared free of measles, Venezuela has seen over 800 cases in the past nine months. Both Brazil and Colombia have seen measles cases that have originated from Venezuela. 

    Tuberculosis is spreading unchecked in Venezuela.

    Malaria, a disease once eliminated from Venezuela, is spreading rapidly with over 300,000 cases in the first ten months of 2017.

    The collapse of Venezuela’s healthcare system is an absolute tragedy in the country, but the spread of infectious diseases is also a transnational threat for the hemisphere. Many countries will begin to block refugee flows if they believe that disease may follow, with containment being the first choice of response. Countries need to reject that path because it is both cruel and unsustainable. The correct response is not to try to isolate Venezuela. Instead, the hemisphere needs to find solutions that help the Venezuelan people and the health of the entire continent, even if it means working against the Maduro government to implement them.