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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Cuba

Government reports relevant to Latin America obtained in May

  • Latest edition of a regular CRS report on political developments, issues with U.S. foreign policy, and events in selected countries.
    Mark P. Sullivan, June S. Beittel, Nese F. DeBruyne, Peter J. Meyer, Clare Ribando Seelke, Maureen Taft-Morales, M. Angeles Villareal, Latin America and the Caribbean: Issues in the 116th Congress (Washington: Congressional Research Service, May 21, 2020) https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R46258.
  • Latest edition of a regular CRS report on developments in Cuba and U.S. policy concerns.
    Mark P. Sullivan, Cuba: U.S. Policy in the 116th Congress (Washington: Congressional Research Service, May 14, 2020) https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R45657.
  • The GAO discusses how well (or poorly) the State Department and USAID have monitored and evaluated programs to Mexico under the “Mérida Initiative” aid package. This report does not report comprehensively on all aid to Mexico.
    U.S. Assistance to Mexico: State Department Could Improve its Monitoring of Mérida Initiative Projects (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, May 12, 2020) https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-388.

WOLA Podcast: Taking a Chainsaw to Cuba Policy

I posted this to wola.org on Thursday:

The Trump administration has gone full hard-line against Cuba, announcing severe new measures—including a once-unthinkable authority to allow owners of seized Cuban property to sue in U.S. courts.

WOLA’s vice president for programs, Geoff Thale, explains why these new punishments and restrictions won’t bring “regime change” to the island, and instead how they will hurt its struggling private sector. He and host Adam Isacson look at the politics underlying these steps, and whether they’re likely to be long-lasting.

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.

Last Month’s U.S. Government Reports Relevant to Latin America

Links From the Last Month About: Civil-Military Relations in Latin America

Marco Bello photo for Reuters. Caption: “Soldiers march during a military parade to celebrate the 206th anniversary of Venezuela’s independence in Caracas, Venezuela, July 5, 2017.”

Argentina

  • Outgoing Defense Minister Julio Martínez alleged that the previous governments of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández so neglected the country’s air force that “over a hundred [aircraft] went out of service or were decommissioned.”

Brazil

  • Brazilian Army soldiers, long tasked with guarding the country’s 10,400-mile land border, are increasingly being used as police. “During the past year, soldiers have spent nearly 100 days patrolling city streets—double the number from the previous nine years combined,” according to an Economist report with an interesting map.

Colombia

  • The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague has notified Colombia that she has her eye on 23 active and retired generals, and 6 colonels, who may bear responsibility for extrajudicial executions. The list, based on cases in five regions, includes the current chief of the armed forces, Gen. Juan Pablo Rodríguez.
  • The mayor of Antioquia, Colombia—the department (province) whose capital is Medellín—is moving forward with a proposal to install retired army colonels as “vice-mayors” of historically conflictive towns. Local human rights groups are opposing the idea.

Cuba

  • American University’s William Leogrande takes down the claim—repeated by proponents of the Trump administration’s tightening of commerce with Cuba—that the Cuban military controls 60 percent of the country’s economy. “Sectors in which the military has little or no participation easily comprise more than half of GDP, and in the other sectors, there are civilian as well as military-controlled firms.”

Ecuador

  • 3,000 members of Ecuador’s armed forces have been deployed to play an anti-crime role in the western provinces of Guayas, Manabí, and Los Ríos. They are mostly searching vehicles at road checkpoints, looking for weapons or other signs of organized crime activity.

Guatemala

  • At NACLA, David Unger summarizes a surprising book by an active-duty Guatemalan colonel. Col. Edgar Rubio Castañeda’s “Desde el Cuartel” (From the Barracks) is a blistering critique of the country’s inequality, the oligarchy that benefits from it, and the military’s role in propping it up.

Mexico

  • Top brass in Mexico’s armed forces have been issuing pointed messages about ethics in politics. Defense Minister Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos called for more effort against corruption and impunity, which he said have “damaged our society.” Navy Minister Adm. Vidal Soberón said that human rights violations are “contrary to every definition of our reason for being” and “will never be tolerated.” However, the investigative website Animal Político reported that prosecutors failed to act on at least five anonymous tips that a local Army captain was tied to the drug-trafficking group (Guerreros Unidos) that massacred 43 students in Iguala, Mexico in September 2014.

Venezuela

  • At least 123 members of all branches of Venezuela’s armed forces have been detained since daily anti-government protests began in April. According to Reuters, “nearly 30 members of the military have been detained for deserting or abandoning their post and almost 40 for rebellion, treason, or insubordination.” The majority are being held in the Ramo Verde military prison where opposition leader Leopoldo López was interned until this past weekend.
  • From his cell, López recorded a video urging military personnel to “rebel” against orders to repress protesters. Opposition leader and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said that “an air of change” can be felt within Venezuela’s armed forces, but not the National Guard. “A very important decision is coming from the components of our armed forces,” Capriles added.

With diplomats on the sidelines, U.S.-Colombia relations begin to fray

Map showing proximity of the two events tomorrow in Miami

Tomorrow in Miami.

Two things are to happen tomorrow in different parts of Miami.

  • At Southern Command headquarters in Doral, U.S. and Central American leaders, along with high officials from Mexico and Colombia, are holding day 2 of the “Conference on Prosperity and Security,” an event put on largely by the Department of Homeland Security to discuss a new approach to Central America.
  • At the Manuel Artime Theater, Donald Trump is announcing a partial rollback of ex-President Barack Obama’s opening to Cuba. This will include a ban on individual travel (group tours are still OK) and stringent requirements that travelers record all expenses, among other restrictions.

Most of Latin America celebrated Obama’s December 2014 opening to Cuba. And most of Latin America opposes Trump’s reversal of it. This makes for an awkward situation for the high Central American, Mexican, and Colombian officials who will be at Southcom, a few miles away from Trump’s announcement.

So awkward that Colombia—perhaps after hearing concerns from Cuba’s government—even mulled pulling out of the Central America meeting, Politico reported earlier today.

“Colombia began to express misgivings about how Trump’s Cuba announcement in Miami would coincide with the two-day U.S.-led Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America that begins today, also in Miami, and suggested it might just skip out on the conference if Trump didn’t delay his announcement by a week, said an aide to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).”

Sen. Rubio responded by threatening post-conflict aid to Colombia.

“Rubio nevertheless counseled the White House to send a message to the government run by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos: The actions were jeopardizing the $450 million ‘Peace Colombia’ initiative that President Barack Obama pushed but that remains in limbo under Trump. …’Let me get this right: Santos is coming to us and asking for $400 million to fund his flawed peace plan, but he is threatening to pull out of an event that’s not even about them? It’s about El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras,’ the senator told the White House, according to the Rubio aide.

(This report is partially inaccurate: last month Congress passed, and Trump signed into law, the budget including the $450 million “Peace Colombia” appropriation.) An aide to another critic of Obama’s Cuba policy and Colombia’s peace accord, Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Florida), called the Colombian embassy, Politico reports, “to tell the country to stay out of the Cuba matter or face ‘consequences.'”

Put aside for a minute (just for a minute) the outrageous threats directed at Colombia, one of the hemisphere’s most moderate and staunchly pro-Washington governments. Whose idea was it to hold these two overlapping events in the same city at the same time? Isn’t this the sort of thing that diplomats are supposed to catch, and to stave off ahead of time?

The answer to the first question is that it was nobody’s idea for the events to strangely coincide: it just happened. The answer to the second is that the diplomats aren’t in the driver’s seat here. The people trained to ensure smooth international relations are an afterthought in this administration’s Latin America policy.

Here we are in June, and “assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs” is one of many empty diplomatic posts for which the Trump administration has not even sent a nominee’s name to Congress. The State Department’s profile on both the Central America meeting and the Cuba decision is low.

One hears much more about the Central America conference from the Department of Homeland Security, whose secretary, former Southcom commander John Kelly, has been the driving force behind the Trump administration’s intent to devise a new Central America policy. Just compare Homeland Security’s up-to-the-moment, video-filled site about the conference to State’s web page, which offers a backgrounder from a few days ago and a speech given by Secretary Rex Tillerson, who is only attending the conference’s first day.

When you cut out or demote the diplomats, you’re going to make rookie mistakes. Like, for instance, putting a close regional ally in a politically uncomfortable situation, then threatening it when its government dares to speak up.

Between this and Tuesday’s comments from Secretary Tillerson complaining openly about Colombia’s 2015 decision to stop aerial coca spraying, the U.S.-Colombia relationship is fraying. And Senator Marco Rubio is involved in both episodes.

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