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.

The day ahead: May 25, 2017

I’m going to be in meetings all day, and hard to reach. (How to contact me)

I’ve got meetings all day, all of them at WOLA’s offices. A morning call with the creators of “Security Force Monitor,” an interesting new human rights data project. Then a conference call with WOLA supporters to talk about our border security and migration work. (I’m getting a late start today because I wanted to do this call on a proper full night’s sleep.) A meeting to talk about our legislative strategy for border work. A meeting with a visiting USAID Colombia official. And a meeting with a Canadian expert. I probably won’t post much here today, as I won’t have my fingers on a computer keyboard.

The past week in U.S. policy toward Latin America

Image from the Justice-State inspectors-general report on Honduras (PDF).

  • The Trump administration’s budget request to Congress, issued May 23, has a lot of bad news for Latin America. The foreign assistance request would slash aid to the region by 35 percent. The Homeland Security request would build 74 miles of border wall and hire 500 new Border Patrol agents. The request will now undergo a long march through the Republican-majority Congress, which should soften (if not totally undo) the cuts. Here’s WOLA’s analysis, in written/graphical and podcast form. Here’s coverage from Reuters, El Tiempo (Colombia), Proceso (Mexico), and La Prensa (Nicaragua).
  • A report issued jointly by the State and Justice Departments’ inspectors-general [PDF], the product of years of work, confirms the worst of what many of us suspected about three 2012 incidents in Honduras, in which DEA personnel working with Honduran security forces participated in events involving use of lethal force. In the most notorious of these, a shooting on a remote river in the town of Ahuas, four innocent civilians died. The report documents rather shocking levels of non-cooperation on the part of DEA and State Department officials, including long delays in responding to inquiries and the passing of misleading information to the U.S. ambassador and to members of Congress.
  • 58,706 Haitian citizens have been living in the United States under the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program since the 2010 earthquake. This status expires in July. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly just granted them six more months, with instructions “to handle their affairs” and prepare massively to leave the United States in January. The Haitians’ situation is seen as a preview of what may happen to 263,000 Salvadorans and 86,000 Hondurans whose TPS is to expire early next year.
  • Mexico’s defense and navy secretaries were in Washington May 23 for a trilateral meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan. Releases were vague on what specifically they talked about.
  • Several days earlier, Mexico’s foreign affairs and interior secretaries were in Washington for talks with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Homeland Security Secretary Kelly. They were talking about improving cooperation against transnational organized crime, and presumably against production of heroin in Mexico. A joint press conference was cordial but announced no new initiatives.
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos paid a visit to Washington where he met for the first time with Donald Trump. The meeting was cordial, as were Santos’s meetings with members of Congress, although Santos heard concerns about rising coca cultivation in Colombia. Santos did not get from Trump a ringing endorsement of the November 2016 peace accord with the FARC guerrillas, though Trump, in response to a reporter’s question, assured that “There’s nothing tougher than peace, and we want to make peace all over the world.”
  • The Trump administration levied sanctions against eight Venezuelan Supreme Court justices whose March decision effectively to annul the opposition-led legislature sparked protests that continue today. WOLA’s David Smilde doubts that they will be effective, and worries the sanctions may in fact increase the government’s “exit costs.” Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s eloquent response to Trump was that he “get your pig hands out of here.”
  • A Trump administration review of U.S. policy toward Cuba was expected to be complete last week, but no announcement was forthcoming. Any decision has been put off for a couple of weeks.

The following legislation moved in Congress in the past week:

At Trump’s 2018 Foreign Aid Budget Would Deal a Devastating Blow to Latin America

Here’s a new post at WOLA’s site in which I perform serious analysis on something I should normally be poking fun at: the Trump administration’s proposal to cut Latin America’s foreign assistance by 35 percent next year.

Map showing which countries get cut the most

Some observations:

  • Assistance to Central America would drop by 39 percent from 2016 to 2018.
  • Assistance to Colombia would drop by 16 percent from 2016 to 2018, and by 36 percent from 2017 to 2018.
  • Assistance to Mexico in the foreign aid bill would drop by 45 percent from 2016 to 2018.
  • Along the U.S.-Mexico border, the Homeland Security appropriation calls for new fencing at a cost of $21.2 million per mile.
  • Foreign Military Financing, the main military aid program in the foreign aid budget, would fall to zero throughout Latin America.
  • The military aid cuts may get a boost from Defense Department budget aid accounts.
  • The request devastates independent development agencies.

Read the whole thing here.

WOLA Podcast: The Trump Administration Wants to Slash U.S. Aid

WOLA’s website will shortly post a written/graphical overview of the Trump administration’s dumpster-fire of a foreign aid budget request. But for now, here’s a very fact-filled conversation about it between WOLA’s program director, Geoff Thale, and me.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Sandy Huffaker/The Washington Post via Getty photo at Vox. Caption: “A family is reunited through the fence during a Children’s Day celebration in San Ysidro, CA in 2016.”

(Even more here)

May 24, 2017


We wound up with just a dozen names and decided to seek out one from each major political party – and one unicorn, the only politician everyone agrees is clean


En su presupuesto para el año 2018, el presidente republicano solicita US$ 251.400 millones en recursos administrados por el Departamento de Estado para la guerra contra las drogas y algunos programas de desarrollo social y posconflicto


Polls show the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), the new party of veteran leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, could wrest control of the state of Mexico from the PRI

En materia de cooperación militar destinó 87 millones 660 mil dólares a México, aproximadamente la mitad de los fondos que se enviaron al país en 2016

The request would cover 32 miles of border wall construction, 28 miles of levee wall in the Rio Grande Valley, and 14 miles of a new border wall system to replace fencing south of San Diego

“We are absolutely dead serious about the wall,” Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said

Central America Regional, Mexico

Tuesday’s proposal foresees 2018 Mexican aid of $87.66 million, down more than 45 percent from the 2016 outlay


La cooperación caería a 200,000 dólares para el año fiscal 2017 – 2018 y se concentraría solo en educación y formación militar internacional


The apparent olive branch may never come to fruition, as a special assembly to rewrite the nation’s constitution is slated to take place first

Both the government and opposition leaders — who urge nonviolence — appear to be losing control

Riots and looting have raised risks that protests could spin out of control

The day ahead: May 24, 2017

I should be reachable for a while in the early afternoon. (How to contact me)

I’ll be doing some drive-time radio interviews in Colombia this morning to talk about the Trump administration’s proposed aid cut to the country. We’ll put out a memo hopefully in the morning explaining what’s in this disaster of a budget and what comes next. In the late morning I’ll also record a podcast about it with a colleague or two at WOLA. I’ve got a morning call scheduled with a journalist and an afternoon meeting to plan a conference call with WOLA supporters. When not doing that, I’ll be on a writing deadline for an academic article about U.S. policy toward Colombia.

Hopefully this 2018 foreign aid budget request is dead on arrival in Congress

The Trump administration issued its 2018 budget request to Congress today. We’ll have a proper memo out about this tomorrow. For now, here’s a crude graphic that shows pretty clearly how radical and irresponsible the foreign aid part of the request is.

Chart of U.S. aid to Latin America since 1996 showing 2018 request dropping to levels not seen since 2001.

The Homeland Security request, meanwhile, proposes to build 74 miles of border wall at a cost of over $21 million per mile. That’s about three times the cost of the border fencing built in the years after passage of the Secure Fence Act of 2006.

More analysis—and probably a better-looking graphic—will come to tomorrow.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

May 23, 2017


Las Farc han venido aplicando lo que llaman ‘la estrategia Mojoso’ para que como ese, otros disidentes le apuesten al proceso de paz

Colombia, Venezuela

En un comunicado, el Ministerio de Defensa de Colombia aseguró que los vehículos fueron desplegados en 2015 con base en los acuerdos entre autoridades de ambas naciones


“As soon as you put your head down to sleep, it’s six months. After six months, what is next?”

The announcement did not please advocates on either side of the immigration debate. It foreshadowed the battles to come next year, when the Trump administration will decide the fate of about 263,000 people from El Salvador


Durante el encuentro, realizado en Washington entre el domingo pasado y ayer, se establecieron diálogos estratégicos, en los que se abordaron temas sobre la defensa de América del Norte, ayuda humanitaria, apoyo a Centroamérica y el Caribe, cooperación para operaciones de mantenimiento de la paz

Mendez described the Sierra Blanca Detention center in West Texas as “small, with metal bunks, worn-out rubber mattresses, wooden floors, bathrooms with walls covered in green and yellow mold, weeds everywhere and snakes and rats that come in at night”


Venezuela’s state prosecutor has panned unpopular President Nicolas Maduro’s plan to create a grassroots congress, deepening a rare public split among the ruling Socialists

Demonstrators lit the house in the city of Barinas where Chavez spent his early years aflame Monday afternoon along with several government buildings

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

(1) In a decision announced late on May 17, Colombia’s Constitutional Court appears to have dealt a severe blow to implementation of the FARC peace accord. In a 5–3 vote, the magistrates did away with key parts of “fast track,” the special legislative authority the Court approved last December to allow swift passage of laws to enact the November 2016 peace accord’s commitments.

The new changes result from the Court’s consideration of a suit brought by Iván Duque, a senator from the opposition party led by former president Álvaro Uribe, the peace accord’s most vocal opponent. The Court struck down the ability to get a vote on a full bill without amendments or modifications (votar en bloque, similar to how the U.S. Congress approved free-trade agreements in the 1990s and 2000s). It also struck down a requirement that the executive branch approve of changes to implementing laws under “fast-track” (a protection against changes that might violate the accord’s commitments). The decision does not undo the few peace-implementation laws that have already passed, like the amnesty for ex-guerrillas not accused of war crimes.

Without “fast track,” the danger is that Colombia’s Congress might treat what was agreed after four years of negotiations in Havana as a mere suggestion. Legislative wrangling could delay, change unrecognizably, or quietly kill some of the government’s accord commitments.

We still need to see the actual text of the decision to interpret the potential damage. In the meantime, here is a sample of what analysts are saying.

  • The government’s lead negotiator in the FARC talks, Humberto de la Calle, said the Court’s decision “opens the door to a cascade of modifications to what was agreed,” calling it a “swindle.”
  • Juanita León and Tatiana Duque of La Silla Vacía discuss the “hard blow” that the Court’s decision represents for the peace accord’s implementation, which they say is a “triumph” for Uribe’s right-wing opposition party. On the bright side, though, León and Duque say that congressional deliberation and compromise might restore to the accord some of the credibility it lost when voters rejected it by a 50.2 to 49.8 percent margin in an October 2, 2016 plebiscite.
  • “The legalistic complexity of the debate is such that few Colombians have managed to understand the devastating effects that this decision has on the future of peace in Colombia,” wrote Semana columnist María Jimena Duzán.
  • Rodrigo Uprimny, a much-cited legal scholar from the think-tank DeJusticia, believes the decision was “legally incorrect” and worries that it might “make accord implementation slower and harder, as political groups opposed to or skeptical of peace could use the ability to introduce changes, and to vote article by article, to attempt, in bad faith, to block the accord’s implementation.”
  • Semana magazine lays out seven pessimistic effects that the decision will have on the peace process, concluding that “the ball is now in Congress’s court” at a bad time–just 10 months before the next quadrennial legislative elections.

(2) President Juan Manuel Santos visited Washington and met with Donald Trump at the White House. Trump appeared not to have been well-briefed about Colombia. “Trump did not mention Colombia’s hard-fought peace process until a reporter asked about it,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “He then praised Santos’ efforts. ‘There’s nothing tougher than peace,’ Trump said, ‘and we want to make peace all over the world.’”

Santos’s visit came just 13 days after the 2017 foreign aid budget became law, including the $450 million post-conflict aid package (called “Peace Colombia”) that the Obama administration had requested in February 2016. (The link points to $391 million in aid, because it doesn’t include assistance through the Defense Department budget and a few smaller accounts.)

As the Trump administration prepares to issue to Congress its request for foreign assistance in 2018—which is expected today—two senators appear to be occupying the Republican legislative majority’s “turf” on Colombia policy. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) explained in a Miami Herald column that he opposes the FARC peace accord, but supports the “Peace Colombia” aid package with conditions. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) supports a more generous approach to lock in the peace accord’s security gains. Sen. Blunt, along with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee), co-chaired an Atlantic Council task force that issued a report coinciding with Santos’s visit, which endorsed aid within the “Peace Colombia” framework.

(3) The Colombian Presidency’s post-conflict advisor, Rafael Pardo, says the government will launch 12 pilot projects this year to start work on one of the most ambitious parts of the peace accord’s rural development chapter: a cadaster, or mapping of all landholdings in the country.

The day ahead: May 23, 2017

I should be reachable much of the day. (How to contact me)

Other than a morning car maintenance appointment and lunch with a congressional staffer, I’m in the office all day. Today is when we expect to see the first details of the Trump administration’s 2018 budget request, and we’ll be crunching those numbers as quickly as possible to produce a memo explaining the extent of the potential damage.

I’ll be looking at:

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

May 22, 2017


La Unión de Promociones apuntó a “terroristas subversivos de los 70”. Incluye militantes que eran chicos en esa época


The Brazilian Order of Attorneys decided early Sunday to formally request Temer’s impeachment after a 25-1 vote in favor of his removal


Incumplir acuerdo con la guerrilla podría generar nuevas violencias, dice el jefe negociador le explica por qué la paz transita por el momento más difícil

Este es uno de esos momentos críticos en los que la historia toma nota sobre la grandeza de sus principales líderes

El ministerio para el Posconflicto lanzó el catastro multipropósito. ¿De qué se trata? El alto consejero para el Posconflicto, Rafael Pardo Rueda, se lo explicó a EL TIEMPO

Luego de tres días de manifestaciones para pedir al Gobierno que vire sus ojos hacia esa ciudad, la situación se hizo compleja por los choques entre Fuerza Pública y ciudadanía

Tras dos años en marcha y más de mil capturas de sus integrantes, ‘Agamenón 2’ no estará en manos exclusivas de la Policía Nacional, sino que incluirá tropas del Ejército

A Santos y a Trump les conviene que los dos países mantengan su cercanía y, por eso, la alianza bilateral quedó en firme, y ratificada, esta semana en la Casa Blanca. Por ahora

El Salvador

Escobar, like nearly 11,000 others who were arrested, had no criminal record. He was a prominent member of the local community, and his wife and children are U.S. citizens

El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras

Salvadorans say they are taking their cues from undocumented family members in the United States, who are living in greater fear of deportation


The prospect that 58,000 Haitians could be forced to return en masse after spending more than seven years in the United States has raised a rare bipartisan outcry among state and federal lawmakers in Florida


Many see a pattern of official complacency, and, in some cases, of complicity. But Valdez’s murder had the feeling of a death too far

The president wants to make 5,000 new hires, under a streamlined process that critics fear could open a door to other rogue agents like Mr. Luna


Weapons experts said there have long been fears that the weapons could be stolen, sold or somehow channeled to the wrong hands, concerns exacerbated by the current civil unrest

I am going to describe what I can about the logic of the event, to help readers to get a feel for it. I am going to end with some critical comments

About 100 people, who had been participating in anti-Maduro protests, surrounded him, doused him in gasoline and set him alight in Plaza Altamira in east Caracas

Links from the past month about: Politics and security in Latin America

Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images photo at National Public Radio. Caption: “Protesters display signs from an overpass Monday in Caracas as they call for Maduro’s ouster. The president blames the unrest — and the economic troubles that helped inspire it — on foreign powers like the U.S.”

Protests against President Nicolás Maduro’s regime on the streets of Venezuela have now reached their 50th day, and at least 47 people have died. The U.S. government issued sanctions against the eight Venezuelan Supreme Court justices whose March power grab–a thwarted efort to dissolve the opposition-led legislature–sparked the protests in the first place. Eight Latin American countries, including neighboring Colombia, criticized the government’s “excessive use of force” against protesters. The increasingly isolated government announced that it would pull Venezuela out of the Organization of American States. Maduro’s much-criticized proposal to undo the crisis is to have a constituent assembly, with little opposition participation, rewrite the country’s 1999 constitution. There was a scare about the well-being of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López, who appears to remain healthy in the Ramo Verde military prison. Still unclear from all the reporting about Venezuela is what’s happening inside the powerful armed forces–which are now trying civilian protesters in military courts–and how deeply the protests have penetrated poorer neighborhoods that were once pro-government bastions.

In Brazil, where it seems like the majority of the political class is under investigation for graft, President Michel Temer may soon be forced out by recent revelations of illegal payments and bribes. A general strike at the end of April, led by unions, ground the country to a halt. Meanwhile large landholders, who have a strong voice in the current conservative government, got a congressional commission to recommend dismantling the indigenous affairs agency Funai, which helps indigenous Brazilians defend land claims. Funai already had its budget cut 40 percent this year. Indigenous protests against land grabs were met with a violent police response in Brasília.

Colombia’s peace accord has brought near-total compliance with an August 2016 ceasefire and the least violent eight months the country has known in decades. Still, the process is facing significant setbacks. A looming May 31 deadline for full FARC disarmament will not be met, because government inaction on setting up disarmament sites delayed the process and because the FARC has reported more than 900 arms caches scattered around the country. And Colombia’s Constitutional Court has just struck down key parts of the “fast track” authority by which the government and Congress were to approve legislation necessary to implement the accords.

In Paraguay, President Horacio Cartes backed off an attempt to seek re-election, which had triggered violent protests in Asunción in March.

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