Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.


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December 2018

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Líderes de Puerto Cachicamo photo at Semana (Colombia). Caption: “La comunidad de Puerto Cachicamo decidió protestar ante el Ejército porque es la única Es la única figura de institucionalidad en la zona a la que pueden acudir con sus reclamos”

(Even more here)

December 18, 2018

Western Hemisphere Regional

Army Col. Rob Manning told reporters at the Pentagon that 3,150 active-duty troops remain at the southern border, including 1,200 in California, 1,050 in Texas and 900 in Arizona

People have asked me, “Didn’t you listen to Trump when he said that he would build a wall?” I didn’t take the idea seriously during the campaign

At nearly every turn, Trump has taken a hard-line position not only on the broad strokes of his immigration policy but on the specifics of building the wall that his supporters chant for

The statement by Jud Murdock, CBP’s acting assistant commissioner, contradicted official claims that the practice of “metering” — when officials limit the number of individuals who can make asylum claims at ports of entry on any given day — was due to resource constraints

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are scheduled on Tuesday to visit the remote station where Jakelin Caal was held

El cambio debe empezar de abajo hacia arriba, conectando las comunidades —periodistas, sociedad civil y academia— para abordar esta dramática realidad de manera directa, no a través de percepciones o intereses

Central America Regional, Mexico

OPIC could invest and mobilize up to $2.5 billion more in this region if commercially viable projects are identified


En momentos en que el gobierno anuncia su política integral contra las drogas y los ataques contra líderes de sustitución siguen en aumento, persisten las inquietudes de las comunidades que no ven el carácter integral en la nueva estrategia

La votación a favor en el Congreso que impediría que los delitos del narcotráfico y el secuestro sean amnistiables y, en esa vía, declarados conexos a los delitos políticos, sienta las bases para futuras negociaciones

Colombia, Venezuela

El Gobierno de Venezuela denunció este mes que más de 700 “mercenarios” están siendo entrenados en Colombia para simular ataques venezolanos contra las fuerzas del orden en el país vecino


Mientras el gobierno nacional analiza diferentes opciones de químicos con los que podría entrar a erradicar cultivos ilícitos, expertos advierten sobre las consecuencias que estos herbicidas pueden acarrear para la salud humana y el medio ambiente

El congresista de la etnia nasa del norte del Cauca denunció que durante el 2018 han sido asesinados 92 comuneros, tres de ellos gobernadores de cabildos y muchos guardias ancestrales en todo el país

Por el momento, se desconoce quienes fueron los responsables de la nueva masacre, pero las autoridades comenzaron las investigaciones

En los primeros ocho meses del año mostraba un incremento del 8,6 por ciento en los homicidios con respecto al mismo periodo del año anterior


The heated conversations over constitutional reform and the government’s responsiveness to civil society voices, however belated and partial, have raised hopes: Maybe post-Castro Cuba will gradually evolve toward a more responsive governance


Pese a que el sistema para coordinar estas acciones opera incompleto y con retrasos, con falta de registros, protocolos y recursos humanos

Alfonso Durazo consideró que en la lucha contra el narco “el problema no fue el Ejército, sino el uso que se hizo de él, por los mandos civiles

Central America Regional, Mexico

They said they were not going to strike a deal with the United States to keep asylum seekers on the Mexican side of the border. That would allow Mr. Trump to claim a victory Mexican officials are not willing to give him

Of the total $10.6 billion referenced in Tuesday’s announcement, it appears the only new figure is the $4.5 billion in potential loans, loan guarantees and related services through OPIC


Dos veinteañeros mantienen vivo desde un hotel de Managua el diario Confidencial mientras esperan que la policía del Gobierno de Daniel Ortega y Rosario Murillo los detenga en cualquier momento


The Russian diplomat also explained that he considered “this entire media hype is artificial and unprofessional.”

This isn’t an aid package

Today the U.S. and Mexican governments announced what looks like a bombshell: a monster $10.6 billion package of new U.S. aid to address the root causes of migration. $5.8 billion of it for Central America, $4.8 billion for Mexico. “US pledges $10.6B aid for Central America, southern Mexico,” an AP headline gushes.

Not so fast. There’s almost nothing new here. And there’s no new grant aid here. The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff and Mary Beth Sheridan get it right:

Of the total $10.6 billion referenced in Tuesday’s announcement, it appears the only new figure is the $4.5 billion in potential loans, loan guarantees and related services through OPIC. That money would facilitate private-sector activity and would be repaid, unlike traditional development assistance through USAID

“OPIC” is the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a federal agency that provides loans and loan guarantees to private enterprises seeking to make investments in developing countries. The additional money is loans, not aid. It all has to be paid back.

And they’re loans to the private sector—which are not going to address root causes of mass migration from Central America. They won’t reform police, fight corruption, fix justice systems, or anything else that makes threatened people safer from gangs. Private sector loans are hugely unlikely to help struggling small farmers in the Northern Triangle’s countryside. (Unless they choose to leave the countryside and get low-wage jobs in OPIC-financed factories.) These loans will mainly help a tiny elite get wealthier in one of the most unequal regions on the planet.

Here’s how it breaks down:

The $2.1 billion in grant aid listed here is all old money, already committed for 2015 through 2018. Except for $180 million, which is what the Trump administration proposes here in grant aid to Central America for 2019. If approved, that would be a two-thirds cut in 2015-18 aid levels!

It won’t be: for 2019 the House approved $595 million for Central America, and the Senate $515.5 million. If Congress ever passes a 2019 foreign aid budget, it’ll end up giving Central America a multiple of the $180 million proposed here, to help address the causes of migration.

So this is an aid cut and a repackaging of already-given aid and loans, masquerading as a historically generous “Marshall Plan.” Don’t fall for it. And resist this level of cynicism.

The day ahead: December 18, 2018

I should be around in the morning and the late afternoon. (How to contact me)

I’ve got an internal meeting and a meeting with some grad students in the early afternoon. Otherwise I’ll be in the office writing a Colombia update and preparing a talk I’ll be giving tomorrow.

Lights are going out around the region

What a horrible three days for press freedom in the Americas.

  • On Friday, Nicaraguan police raided, and trashed, the offices of the investigative web publication Confidencial, which has been an indispensable and very credible source of coverage of the country’s slide into democracy. Confidencial has been around since 1996.
  • Over the weekend El Nacional, which was just about the last independent daily published newspaper in Venezuela, stopped issuing a print edition, moving to a web-only format that is unlikely to be able to sustain its 90-person staff. It was unable to obtain newsprint paper, which the government made deliberately scarce, among other obstacles. El Nacional has been around since 1943.

Not hard to imagine that the 1930s felt like this across Europe.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Robert Gauthier photo at The Los Angeles Times. Caption: “Brianna Loera, 3, watches a raft of immigrants retreat to Mexico after attempting to cross the Rio Grande illegally.”

(Even more here)

December 17, 2018

Western Hemisphere Regional

Much of the region is rugged and either privately-owned or under environmental protection and there are doubts about whether such a structure would make a significant difference

On Sunday, neither side appeared willing to budge from their negotiating positions over funding for Trump’s proposed wall along the border with Mexico

The head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection said he did not disclose the death of a 7-year-old girl at the border during his testimony to Congress because he wasn’t sure that the mother had been notified and because he didn’t want to “risk politicizing the death of a child”

Border life is marked not so much by violence — that tends to stay on the other side of the river — as by uneasiness, distrust and suspicion of just about everyone: law enforcement, smugglers, immigrants, even their own neighbor

Jakelin’s father, Nery Gilberto Caal Cruz, “made sure she was fed and had sufficient water,” Mr. Caal Cruz’s lawyers said in a statement

During the past two years, that foundation for cooperation has been needlessly yet determinedly destroyed


O governo de Jair Bolsonaro terá mais ministros com formação militar no primeiro escalão do que no governo do general Castelo Branco (1964-1967), que inaugurou o ciclo de militares no poder após o golpe de 1964

Brazil, Paraguay

Nothing has highlighted the scope of Paraguay’s security challenges and the weakness of its institutions more than the events set off by the detention last December of Marcelo Pinheiro Veiga, a Brazilian drug lord


For now, we see few official proposals to create a public safety policy based on data and best practices. Meanwhile, specialists — facing closed government doors — propose, among other ideas, coming together as a united group


El año que viene el Acuerdo de Paz seguirá adelante aunque siga cojeando

Esa es una de las principales conclusiones del informe ‘¿Cuáles son los patrones? Asesinatos de líderes sociales en el Post Acuerdo’, elaborado por 9 organizaciones y centros de estudio


Reconoce que se enfrenta a una red corrupta formada por exmilitares, diputados y empresarios y que fue ingenuo al no medir su fuerza y tamaño. Sostiene que intentará volver en enero


En el caso de la Secretaria de la Defensa Nacional (Sedena), la propuesta enviada al Congreso para su análisis prevé un presupuesto total de 93 mil 670 millones 187 mil 410 pesos. En 2018 se asignaron al Ejército 81 mil 21 millones

Central America Regional, Mexico

Lopez Obrador has proposed what amounts to a Marshall Plan for Central America — $30 billion over five years in job-creating economic development assistance

Colombia, Mexico

Es la primera vez que el jurado escucha directamente al Guzmán Loera realizar una negociación sobre drogas. La llamada sucedió en mayo de 2010


Police raided, ransacked and commandeered his newsroom in the latest chapter of an escalating crackdown on dissent

Carlos F. Chamorro fundó ‘Confidencial’, el medio de periodismo de investigación más respetado de Nicaragua, que denuncia la corrupción y desmanes del Gobierno sandinista

La Policía —leal al dictador Daniel Ortega y su esposa Rosario Murillo— ha ocupado las instalaciones, ordenando el retiro de los guardas de seguridad e instalando media docena de policías armados dentro del edificio


No lo integran suficientes gobiernos como para invocar la aplicación de la Carta Democrática Interamericana a su par venezolano

No solo necesita repetir cien veces una mentira, también requiere dotarla de sentimentalismo, afectivizarla. Se trata de convertir la ignorancia en una virtud

El Nacional, histórico diario venezolano, publicó su última edición impresa, ahogado por las presiones del régimen de Nicolás Maduro

The day ahead: December 17, 2018

I’ll be in meetings all day. (How to contact me)

During 3 weeks of travel to Colombia and Cuba, I often replied to people who wanted to meet, “I’m back on the 17th.” Now it’s the 17th, and today and tomorrow I’m sitting down with a variety of people. Today it’s the weekly staff meeting, a European diplomat, two graduate students, and then the office Christmas party. There’s not much space between these meetings on my calendar, so I may be hard to contact.

The week ahead

I’m back in Washington after three weeks of travels, and need to hit the ground running. The week before Christmas tends to be slower at work, but this time it also happens to be the last week of the 115th Congress. Unless Congress and the White House make another deal to postpone things, much of the U.S. government could shut down Friday over Trump’s demand for $5 billion in border-wall money, which we vehemently oppose.

So I expect to be working on that, doing some writing about Colombia, giving a talk at the Inter-American Defense College, and meeting with legislative-branch staff. All while wrapping presents and putting up decorations.

“Concrete actions”

Nicaraguan journalist Dánae Vílchez in the Washington Post on Friday:

The United States has taken some important steps, including the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act that was approved this week by Congress, a bill that would place conditions on the “approval of loans to the Ortega regime by international financial institutions,” and expand the Magnistky sanctions on people close to the regime (including Rosario Murillo, the vice president and first lady). The United Nations, however, seems to believe that democracy and the lives of thousands can be defended with press releases.

But only concrete actions can stop a dictator such as Ortega, a man who possesses an unquenchable thirst for power and is capable of anything to keep it.

…and the piece ends there, leaving the suggestion of “concrete actions” in the air.

The barbaric raids last week on CENIDH, IEEPP, Confidencial, and others have all of us casting about for new ways to help Nicaraguans end their dictatorship. So what did Vilchez mean here? Is the United States doing enough, but not the UN? If so, is she calling for worldwide NICA and Magnitsky sanctions? Or should the United States and the UN both be going even harder than they are against Ortega and Murillo?

And if so, what are the best options?

Trust in security institutions across Latin America

All credit here goes to the Chile-based Latinobarómetro polling organization, which carries out an annual public-opinion survey in most of Latin America and the Caribbean. The 2018 poll (PDF) is a fascinating read.

For an upcoming presentation, I wanted to know what the poll said about how Latin Americans are viewing the three government institutions that have the most to do with defense and security: the military, the police, and the justice system. When citizens are asked whether they trust these institutions, the poll shows a huge variation across countries.

Also interesting is the gap, in percentage points, between trust in the armed forces and trust in the police.

Perhaps it makes sense that the police, which are in more regular contact with the population, would be consistently lower. But this is a big problem, because it feeds calls to send the military into the streets to perform crimefighting roles that should be up to civilians.

Windows XP?

This from a September Homeland Security Inspector-General report on Customs and Border Protection (CBP)’s border drone program:

(“GCS” are the ground control stations communicating with the border drones. “NASOC” are National Air Security Operations Centers, managing manned and unmanned border surveillance flights, located at Sierra Vista, Arizona; Corpus Christi, Texas; and Grand Forks, North Dakota.)

Windows XP came out in 2001. So incredibly, a sensitive Predator-B surveillance program flying over the U.S.-Mexico border, recording images of U.S. citizens going about their daily lives on U.S. soil, is running a 17-year-old OS on its computers.

Unsurprisingly, the Inspector-General is a bit concerned about how secure these drone-gathered images of U.S. citizens are, and how this affects their privacy.

Writing from a long Miami airport layover

I’m back from Havana. This is the second time I’ve participated in an annual “series of conversations” between U.S. and Cuban scholars and diplomats—the last time was 2013. It was an honor to be on the list of invited Americans, most of whom—unlike me—are Cuba specialists. It was a lot of panels, and I learned much about the sad state of U.S.-Cuba relations right now.

View of central Havana. A few more photos at the bottom of this post.

I did run off for several hours yesterday just to walk around Havana, to see what’s different. My sample size was small—about seven miles of wandering with eyes and ears wide open. But I came away with these superficial impressions:

  • Almost everybody seemed to have a smartphone. One popular thing among teenage boys (that’s who I saw doing it anyway) was to walk around playing music from a hand-held bluetooth speaker connected to one’s phone, 1980s boombox style.
  • About two weeks ago, the government started offering 3G data access. Until now, internet was mainly available at wifi hotspots. Like the hotspots, the 3G will be very expensive for any without access to dollars. Still, it will multiply the number of Cubans who are able to access reasonably fast internet.
  • The middle class neighborhoods of Havana (like Vedado, where I walked about 30 blocks) were in better shape than the last time I’d visited. Lots of improvements to houses and apartment buildings, only a few abandoned. Lots of “room for rent” signs.
  • In between those neighborhoods and the fancy, renovated/touristy “old Havana” on the eastern end of town, covering what must be four square miles, is the poorer part of the city’s central core, which looks exactly as grim and shabby as it did when I visited in 2000 and 2013. Central Havana is falling down, and the rot seems to be accelerating. It remains very densely populated, though. From their worn clothing, and from the things they were queuing up for—I saw a block-long bread line—residents of this area aren’t getting remittances from relatives in the United States. They’re firmly in the Cuban peso economy. This is hard: a young cab driver told me his mother, a full-time grocery employee, earns the equivalent of $15 per month—and her water bill alone is $2 per month.
  • Still, I didn’t see people who looked malnourished—in fact, overweight was more common. But fresh fruit and vegetables, and protein sources, are still scarce for those without access to dollars.
  • Neighborhoods are dotted with well-stocked public food markets and a few privately run stores (identified as running on “cuenta propia” basis). There were noticeably more of these than the last time I visited. But again, if you’re only earning pesos, these places are hard to afford.
  • The state-run stores continue to have bare shelves; I peeped into a couple whose entire inventory I probably could’ve bought for about $20 or $30. It’s so strange to see a store window featuring just a few bottles of laundry detergent stacked on top of each other.
  • Signs and murals from Cuba’s extensive network of neighborhood-watch associations, the “Committees in Defense of the Revolution,” are everywhere. I also saw a lot more images of Fidel Castro posted around the city. In 2013, before he died, it was unusual to see Fidel’s likeness on billboards and murals. You still don’t see Raul’s face often, and I didn’t see a single posted image of the new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel.
  • Cuban officials talked a lot about an ongoing, neighborhood-by-neighborhood effort to get input on a new constitution. Apparently, people at these meetings are being encouraged to voice critical opinions. The input will somehow be taken into account as the government drafts a new constitution, which it will then put up to a referendum. There actually does seem to be real doubt about this referendum’s outcome. There’s some internal debate about whether to put gay-rights provisions into the draft constitution. Some fear that doing so might cause socially conservative and religiously fundamentalist Cubans to vote against the document, perhaps leading to its overall rejection.
Signs for neighborhood watch groups (“Committees in Defense of the Revolution”) are everywhere.
A sports car makes its incongruous way down a street in central Havana’s crumbling core.
The U.S. embassy, its staff depleted by the U.S. response to the so-called “sonic attack” health issues, looms in the background.
Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report (center, speaking) led off the first panel at the event in which I participated, analyzing the 2018 midterm elections.

Good morning from Havana

I’m off shortly to the event that has me here. Taking advantage of the $2/hour wifi in the hotel lobby because:

In 4 normal days, I can easily run through a gigabyte of mobile phone data. Over 4 days in Cuba, that would cost me $2,050.

The day ahead: December 11, 2018

I’ll be hard to reach today. (How to contact me)

I’m traveling to Havana today for a series of conversations between U.S. and Cuban scholars. Haven’t been to Cuba in 5 years and I’m very interested in seeing what has changed. I don’t know a lot of people in Cuba, and may have some dead time with no internet access. If so, I look forward to doing a lot of writing.

I’ll be in the Miami airport for a couple of hours in the early afternoon. Otherwise, I’ll be hard to contact. I look forward to posting here when I’m able.

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