On Sunday, Nayib Bukele, the 37-year-old former mayor of San Salvador, won a first-round victory in El Salvador's presidential election, handily vanquishing candidates from the country's two major parties. Bukele, who was expelled from the left-wing FMLN party in 2017 following an internal dispute and ran as the candidate of the center-right GANA party, made history as the first third-party candidate to win the presidency since the end of El Salvador's civil war in 1992.
Stories by Daniel Erikson
Despite U.S. hopes, Bolsonaro sends mixed signals on China strategy
President Trump is sending Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Brazil on Monday in a show of support for the Jan. 1 presidential inauguration of right-wing nationalist Jair Bolsonaro. In a press call previewing Pompeo's visit, the U.S. State Department said that “China’s predatory trade and lending practices” would be among the topics of discussion with Bolsonaro and Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo.
The big picture: The Trump administration hopes that Bolsonaro, who has jolted his country’s political establishment and promised to be similarly disruptive in the foreign policy arena, will join its effort to combat growing Chinese influence in Latin America. But while Brazil's new leader criticized China on the campaign trail, he's likely to assume a more pragmatic attitude toward Beijing once in office.
Bolsonaro struck a combative tone toward China during his presidential campaign.
- In February, he traveled to Taiwan, which he has repeatedly termed a "country," in defiance of Beijing's "One China policy" that defines Taiwan as a province of China.
- In an October television interview, Bolsonaro warned that “China is buying Brazil," and asked, "Are you willing to leave Brazil in the hands of the Chinese?”
- On Nov. 5, shortly after his election, Bolsonaro met with the Chinese ambassador to Brazil and pronounced China a “great cooperation partner.”
- While Bolsonaro publicly disinvited Venezuela and Cuba from his inauguration, he stopped short of similarly disinviting China, which is sending one of President Xi Jinping's special envoys to attend.
Between the lines: China surpassed the U.S. to become Brazil’s largest trading partner in 2009, driven by Chinese appetite for soybean and mineral products. Chinese investment flows in Brazil surged to a 7-year high of nearly $21 billion in 2017. Bolsonaro's nationalist inclinations and skepticism of Chinese communism will be constrained by the hard realities of China's importance to Brazil's economy, and its prognosis for recovery.
The bottom line: Absent a clear plan from Brazil to reduce its economic reliance on China, the Trump administration should have modest expectations for the Bolsonaro government's willingness to maintain a strong stance in opposition to Chinese engagement with Latin America.
Daniel P. Erikson is managing director at Blue Star Strategies and a senior fellow at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement.
Amid struggling economy, Cuba advances constitutional reform
On Saturday, Dec. 22, Cuba’s National Assembly approved a new constitution for a national referendum on Feb. 24, which would mark the country’s biggest political overhaul in a generation.
Why it matters: As popular frustration persists over Cuba's struggling economy and lackluster 1.5% growth, President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who entered office in April 2018, needs to show loyalty to the country’s old guard while modernizing its political and economic structures.
The big picture: In June, Cuba began the process of updating the Soviet-style constitution it adopted in 1976 — though still pledged to uphold the “irrevocable nature of socialism,” as codified by a previous constitutional revision in 2002.
- A 33-person constitutional reform commission, headed by Raúl Castro, approved a draft in July and then initiated a three-month consultation.
- Official press reported that more than 8.9 million Cubans gathered at over 133,000 meetings across the country, resulting in 783,000 proposals. However, some Cubans boycotted or ignored the consultation and others have questioned its validity, given the Communist Party's control of the process.
Where it stands: While the new constitution would not mark a political transformation, it proposes noteworthy changes:
- A 10-year presidential term limit, consisting of two 5-year terms
- Minimum and maximum ages for the presidency as 35 and 60, based on the beginning of the first term
- A new role of prime minister in addition to the president, separating the heads of government and state
- Governors for each of the island’s 15 provinces, which would potentially devolve more authority away from Havana
- A more formally recognized role for non-state actors in the economy, including small private businesses, worker-owned cooperatives, private property and foreign direct investment. However, the extent of this opening has yet to be determined.
Yes, but: The process has not been without controversy.
- The committee ignored calls to allow direct elections or opposition parties.
- Language assuring commitment to “advancing toward a communist society,” which went missing from the original draft, was reinstated in the final version.
- A proposed amendment to recognize same-sex marriage — though championed by Raúl Castro’s daughter Mariela Castro — sparked a groundswell of religious protest and was ultimately omitted.
The bottom line: Even if approved on Feb. 24, the constitution will do little to buy goodwill among frustrated Cubans unless Díaz-Canel takes bolder steps to revive the economy.
Daniel P. Erikson is managing director at Blue Star Strategies, senior fellow at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, and the author of "The Cuba Wars: Fidel Castro, the United States, and the Next Revolution."