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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The day ahead: January 15, 2021

Other than a possible window late morning, I’ll be hard to reach today. (How to contact me)

My calendar tells me I’ve got an interview this morning and a four-hour-plus block of consecutive meetings this afternoon with coalition partners, WOLA colleagues, and diplomats. In between, I’m wrapping up a weekly border update and dashing off suggested questions for all of next week’s confirmation hearings for Biden cabinet nominees.

If you try to contact me, I might not be able to get back until at least the end of the workday. (I might not be able to go the bathroom until the end of the workday.)

The day ahead: January 14, 2021

I may be around in the late afternoon, but it’s a full day. (How to contact me)

I’ve got an interview and a long internal planning meeting this morning, a coalition meeting and a meeting with a border colleague this afternoon, and want to finish a weekly border update and a quick essay for a partner organization before I get out of this chair. I’m getting a late start because I was tired from some late-night writing earlier in the week. That’s all to say, I’ll be hard to reach today.

The day ahead: January 13, 2021

I should be reachable in the afternoon. (How to contact me)

I’m in morning planning meetings and have a mid-day interview. I hope to spend the afternoon adding a bunch of information to my database for future projects and publications, and planning a new resource about the border.

The day ahead: January 12, 2021

I’ll probably be most reachable mid-day. (How to contact me)

I have a meeting this morning with a foreign diplomat this morning, and in the afternoon with congressional staff and a reporter, plus I’d like to sit in on the Forum on the Arms Trade’s annual conference. In the middle of the day I’ll be doing some writing about Colombia, and I should finish digging through all of the legislation that passed at the end of the year.

(I’ll deal with Donald Trump’s visit to the border if we have to—we’ve re-shared an analysis from late October that says everything we wanted to, and I’d rather not give that evil man the attention he craves.)

The day ahead: January 11, 2021

I’m probably reachable, but in writing mode, during the afternoon. (How to contact me)

It’s annual strategic planning time at WOLA. We’ve got all-hands staff meetings today, Wednesday, and Thursday. And this afternoon, when not in this morning’s meeting, I need to finish the second of two planning documents.

It’s not that bad—you have to have a plan on paper for the next 12 months, and some of that was hard to do until we knew who would be in the White House and running the Senate. The way things are going, I need to be forced to carve out time to think deliberately about strategy. But of course, as with everything, I’m running late on this, so I may be hard to reach even when not in meetings today.

The day ahead: January 7, 2021

I’m available until late afternoon, but trying to finish some writing. (How to contact me)

If you’re like me, you probably lost some prime work hours yesterday watching the Capitol get vandalized in real time. Work-wise, I’m about where I was yesterday. Today, I also want to push out a weekly border update, which will need to include a summary of what was in the 2021 appropriation. I’ll be here all day doing that, with only an interview on my calendar at the end of the day.

The day ahead: January 6, 2021

I’m mostly around today, with a couple of scattered commitments. (How to contact me)

How about those Georgia Senate results? The horizons of what’s possible for human rights advocacy on Capitol Hill just broadened substantially, especially with Sen. Leahy now in charge of Appropriations.

The stakes were high, and I didn’t go to bed until about 2:00am last night, as I was watching the count come in. I’m getting a bit of a late start today, but except for a meeting mid-day and another in the late afternoon, I should be reachable as I work on our annual planning documents and do a variety of updates to my news, reports, and contacts databases.

The day ahead: January 5, 2021

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

No meetings on the calendar today, though I do have a mid-day errand to run. I’m going through the thousands of pages of legislation that passed after Christmas (2021 budget and defense authorization) looking for things to be aware of. Also, I’m working on my 2021 program planning documents for WOLA. As I write those, I’ve got an eye on the outcome of today’s Senate runoff in Georgia, which will affect what goals we can consider “achievable” this year because majority control of the Senate is at stake.

The day ahead: January 4, 2021

I should be reachable in the afternoon. (How to contact me)

Happy new year. I’m back and have internal meetings pretty much all morning. In the afternoon I’ll be catching up on e-mail and finishing a big update of all of my contacts, and should be reachable if needed.

Weekly email update: why updating all my contacts over break was less boring than it sounds

Here’s the text of my most recent e-mail newsletter. I don’t usually put the full text here, but this time the format is different, and shorter, because I’ve been on vacation for the past two weeks. Here’s the page with past editions, and a blank to add your e-mail address if you want these more-or-less weekly missives in your inbox.

Happy new year! Let’s hope it truly is. This e-mail is a shorter, “coming back from vacation” edition.

I spent the past two weeks largely unplugged, though I couldn’t stop reading the news in Latin America and put dozens of articles in my database. I didn’t do anything, though, beyond read them. And also, a project that I’ll talk about in a minute.

I spent the break home with the immediate family, as we were all supposed to do. For the first time ever, due to the pandemic, we did not spend this period traveling around the northeastern United States visiting relatives. My wife, daughter, and I had never before been at home during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. While we missed our parents and other relatives, it was very peaceful, just this once, to stay off the highways and to sleep in our own beds.

While I tried to “reflect” more than work during the break, I did take on a big project that was a bit of both. Going back to the 1990s, I have always done a disastrous job of managing my contacts. Like you, probably, I get a steady stream of business cards, emails, whatsapps, and social media contacts. And over the years, layer upon layer, I’ve made a total mess of them.

It’s a privilege to get to know so many people, but—like you, probably—I never found a good way to keep their contact information organized and easy to find with minimal hassle. I captured some of it digitally, sometimes by hand and sometimes via automated apps that never really worked right. By mid-December, I had about 4,500 people’s names and at least some information about them stored on various accounts. Just a huge disorganized mass of address book cruft. Worse, a lot of people I’m in touch with the most weren’t even in there.

So—and I know this is boring, but in a few paragraphs I’ll talk about what I learned doing it—I set about cleaning up my digital address book, once and for all.

  • I threw together those 4,500 contacts in one app (I went with Apple’s iCloud).
  • About 1,000 were plainly incomplete or duplicates, so I deleted them or merged them together.
  • Then, I went over the remaining 3,500 or so one by one. Could I say where that person is now? (Sadly, a few dozen were no longer alive. Others had just fallen completely off my radar.) If I couldn’t, I deleted that contact, which was hard every time. If yes, I added all I could find to update them, from past emails, texts, whatsaapps, social media, and via Google.

This took about a minute per person—easily 50 hours over the past two weeks. It was weirdly addictive, though: I really wanted to know what had happened to everyone. So many stories! I had to stop and write notes to some. I started following many on Twitter. That actually improved the holiday a lot for me.

Everybody got tags (categories, like “colombia” or “press”). I added their Twitter account names. I added photos, if I could find them, because it was fun (and now my email inbox has lots of little portraits in it).

The upshot is: while I’ve still got a few hundred more people to add, I’m now just under 1,700 razor-sharp, up-to-date contacts.

As a result of all this, for instance, I can pull up a list of people I’ve tagged “colombia” and “academic” in just a few seconds, and find 94 people. I’ve never ever been able to do this before. Stupid, but true.

Doing this taught me a few things.

The mid-2000s were really a long time ago. Someone who was in their mid-20s when I entered their contact circa 2005 is now in their early 40s. Someone who was in their mid-50s in 2005 is now in their early 70s. Lots of professors in my list are now “emeritus.”

There’s a real career dichotomy between “transients” and “lifers.” Some people were really hard to update because they constantly switch jobs, every couple of years. Others were really easy: for some, not a single phone number had changed since the Bush administration. Almost everyone was one or the other: two very different career models, not much middle ground.

As someone who has worked in two organizations since 1995, I’m in the “lifer” category. I feel fortunate to work where I do—and there are so many books and knick-knacks in my office, it would take a few days and a van to move me out. I never understood the “transient” job-switchers, I guess because my goals, the changes I’m working for, require a slow, long march.

I don’t mean to say that “my way” is better: the chain of short tenures makes sense if your objectives are short-term, like running a campaign or something that ends with “mission accomplished.” You may also decide you’re on the wrong path—and hopefully you figured that out while you were still young. Too many switches in the same field, though, leaves an impression of restlessness.

Or it means that you work in a turbulent field. Reporters have it rough: as major media outlets have shrunk, my database lists a much higher proportion as freelancers than it did 15 or so years ago. The overall number of reporters remains large, though—maybe larger than back then. I still see only a handful of podcasters and SubStack-ers, but they’re growing too.

Meanwhile, the community of English-language journalists in Colombia is very strong. It’s strong at the U.S.-Mexico border, too, but I knew that before I started this project. Before getting my contacts organized, though, I had a misplaced sense that the number of reporters for English-language outlets in Colombia had shrunk from a “golden age” in the early 2000s when many flocked to the country for the onset of Plan Colombia—seen then, pre-9/11, as a “new U.S. war.”

I was wrong. There is a terrific and surprisingly large community of journalists reporting in English from, or on, Colombia right now. Here are the 31(!) in my database right now, with their Twitter handles if they have them. (This is still a hugely male list, as it would’ve been 20 years ago. Also, apologies if you’re a Colombia-based journalist not listed here. Either we haven’t been in touch in a while, or I don’t have your contact information.)

Dylan Baddour @DylanBaddour; Andrés Bermúdez Liévano @bermudezlievano; Matthew Bristow @mjbristow; Mike Ceaser; Steven Cohen @SD_Cohen; Joshua Collins @InvisiblesMuros; Joe Parkin Daniels @joeparkdan; Stephen Ferry; Ezra Fieser @ezrafieser; Juan Forero @WSJForero; Genevieve Glatsky @thegreatglatsky; Joshua Goodman @APjoshgoodman; Oliver Griffin @OliGGriffin; David Hill @DavidHillTweets; Megan Janetsky @meganjanetsky; Mark Kennedy @MarkKennedy721; Chris Kraul; Tom Laffay @tlaffay; Richard McColl @CasaAmarilla; Jeremy McDermott @jerrymcdermott; Oscar Medina @omedinacruz; Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota; Christina Noriega @c_mnoriega; John Otis @JohnOtis; Stefano Pozzebon @StePozzebon; Alessandro Rampietti @rampietti; Manuel Rueda @ruedareport; Luke Taylor @LukeStTaylor; Wesley Tomaselli @wesleytomaselli; Julie Turkewitz @julieturkewitz; and Kejal Vyas @kejalvyas.

Edit: I see I left off Gideon Long, the Financial Times‘ Colombia-based correspondent (@gideon_long). So make that 32 reporters.

That list leaves out many excellent reporters for Spanish-language outlets; they would’ve made it several times longer. My point is, thanks to my little vacation project, it took me less than 10 minutes to make it.

Here’s an added bonus: in order to see whom I might be missing, I queried my nearly six-year-old news database for the names of the reporters or authors whose work appears most frequently in it. Here’s whose bylines I’ve bookmarked most often.

I should make clear this isn’t a list of the “best” reporters; lots of big names are missing here, and some outlets omit bylines. It’s just those who most frequently wrote stories I saw and found relevant to “security in Latin America” during the entire six-year span between 2015 and 2020. For that, hats off to the heavily represented conflict reporters at Medellín’s El Colombiano, who’ve been cranking out near-daily dispatches for many years.

Redoing my contacts also convinced me to update my long-dormant LinkedIn page and maybe restart Facebook, which I exited after the Cambridge Analytica revelations. I wouldn’t do so in order to spend much time at either service, I don’t see either as a venue for interactions. (A new “inbox” where I don’t have control over how the data is used? No thanks.) But while updating, I found that many people prefer to get their information at those sites, and because I’m not there, my program is missing them. It takes very little extra effort to cross-post something to Facebook or Linkedin so that they’ll see it. Still, I wouldn’t post anything to either that’s not already available somewhere else, because of data privacy concerns.

And that’s it for now. Next week I’ll go back to the usual format for these e-mails, and talk about something that, I hope, is more interesting than updating contacts. Let’s get this year started.

Weekly email update is out

I just sent off another e-mail update to those who’ve subscribed. It’s a bit shorter because I’ve been off, but it has:

  • Information about a good bill that actually passed Congress about missing migrants at the border;
  • Full text of this week’s Colombia peace update;
  • Full text of this week’s U.S.-Mexico border update;
  • 5 “longread” links from the past week;
  • A brief comment about drug policy; and, finally,
  • An extra helping of funny tweets.

Here’s the page with past editions and a blank to add your e-mail address if you want these more-or-less weekly missives in your inbox.

The day ahead: December 15, 2020

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

This is it, my last day fully on the job in 2020. during the rest of the year, I’ll be using vacation days not to travel—not this year—but to get some deep writing done, and then to unplug almost completely.

Today I have 3 internal meetings, I’m talking to a gathering of Colombian Afro-descendant activists, and sitting in on a capstone project presentation for some Georgetown students working on civil-military relations in the Americas. That will leave little time to correspond, except perhaps a window mid-day.

The day ahead: December 14, 2020

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

This is my first workday in a while with only one meeting on the calendar. It’s a weekly marathon morning internal staff meeting, but still, I’ve got the afternoon to catch up on a series of smaller things on my list.

It would be nice to clear those off: I won’t have as much alone-time tomorrow, and then I plan to take the rest of the week, Wednesday through Friday, for what I’m calling a “soft vacation” before the holidays. I did not come close to using my leave time for 2020 (I’ll be losing some of it), but from the 16th onward I want to refuse meetings, turn on the e-mail autoreply, and finally finish a report on Putumayo, Colombia, that I’ve been fitfully working on for months.

So while I’m trying to clear the decks of other commitments today in order to focus on writing starting Wednesday, this afternoon is probably the best time all week to try to contact me.

Weekly email update is out

I just sent off another e-mail update to those who’ve subscribed. It’s got:

  • A link to our latest border policy commentary (a good one);
  • Our four-part podcast miniseries on the U.S. transition and Latin America;
  • Video of last Wednesday’s discussion of coca and eradication in Colombia;
  • Video of last Friday’s discussion of civil-military relations in Latin America, along with that of a companion event we hosted in September;
  • Full text of this week’s Colombia peace update;
  • Full text of this week’s U.S.-Mexico border update;
  • 5 “longread” links from the past week;
  • Links to 4 government reports relevant to Latin America obtained in November;
  • Links to Latin America-related events this coming week; and, finally,
  • Some funny tweets.

Here’s the page with past editions and a blank to add your e-mail address if you want these more-or-less weekly missives in your inbox.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.