I sometimes whine about having so many meetings and trips that I never get any “real” work done. Well, now I’ve got my wish.
For the first time in over 20 years, I have no upcoming travel or out-of-town visitors on my calendar. Due to COVID-19, everything has been canceled—4 big commitments in the next 3 weeks alone, wiped away. I have no lectures to write. No fieldwork to prepare. No agendas to set up. No imminent writing deadlines. And now, even face-to-face meetings with congressional staff or other government officials are complicated.
But meanwhile, coronavirus isn’t stopping anyone from killing Colombian social leaders, excluding asylum-seekers, militarizing the border, using soldiers for political purposes, preparing to re-fumigate coca-growers, or undermining the peace process. The work is still urgent.
With these imposed constraints, I’m lucky. My family’s in good health. I live a mile from work. My daughter is beyond “constant childcare” age (in fact, if she’s smart, she’ll cash in babysitting). I’ve got fast internet and a great office setup at home. Thanks to these privileges, I see opportunities for my work over these next several weeks of “flattening the curve.”
But it’s not just that I’ll have more unscheduled time. Everyone we’ve ever worked with, and everyone we’d like to know better, will also be grounded, sitting by their computers and phones with much emptier schedules than normal. Congressional staff and journalists may have more time to read our emails. Whatever we put online may reach a larger audience: more people stuck at home with more free time and happy to have something to read or listen to.
So in addition to “catching up on reading, and writing more online commentaries,” here are some ideas I’m kicking around. I don’t plan to do all of these—just brainstorming here.
- Much more frequent podcasts for the duration. Nearly everyone we know is reachable with more free time. Colleagues and partners. People who’ve written interesting books and articles. Even journalists and congressional staffers, if they feel at liberty to talk. I want to book more interviews for WOLA’s podcast.
- Keep adding to the colombiapeace.org website. I’m working on about a dozen explainer “cards” about human rights, aspects of the peace accord, coca, U.S. aid and other issues, which should start going up over the weekend. Several other pages on that revitalized website will also need frequent updating.
- Set up an online border resource. This is some infrastructure-building I’d like to do to make our future border work more effective. The pace of the border work has been very fast, and with new horrors happening every few days, a lot gets lost. In a few meeting-less days, I can build a resource that will “catch” all of that and keep it somewhere that’s quickly retrievable. A good solution is a basic WordPress install. There’s aspects of the recently revamped colombiapeace.org page that I’d find useful to replicate—using the same code—for the border work: a place to keep infographics, a timeline, links to official and NGO reports, public-domain photos, important numbers, embedded videos. Also, I could make pages for border maps, congressional hearings, and links to groups doing good work at the border and in Mexico. I wouldn’t add any original writing or blogging to that resource: that writing should go on WOLA’s website. But this tool would make border writing a lot easier to do.
- Update our 2017 resource about military aid programs. In 2017 we put together a listing/description of more than 100 programs that the State and Defense Departments can use to provide assistance to foreign militaries and police. I’ve lacked time to comb through the last few years’ defense, homeland, and foreign operations bills, pulling out the bits needed to get this resource back up to date. I’d especially like to get a list of all the reports to Congress that these bills required, copies of which we should be working harder to get our hands on.
- Video explainers. Last Friday’s unpolished “sitting at my desk” video about fumigation in Colombia ended up getting 5,800 views and 83 retweets. That wasn’t hard, I should do more.
- Write some English-language explainers about some issues in Colombia that rarely get narrated in English. Along the lines of yesterday’s piece about the U.S. terrorist list. What are these big human rights scandals that have hit Colombia’s Army in the past year? Who is probably behind killings of social leaders? Why is the JEP actually doing pretty well, but also what are its flaws? What do people mean nowadays when they say “paramilitarism?” What is a PDET and why does it matter? What are all those allegations swirling around Álvaro Uribe and his party? Why is it so hard to get land titles? These and more never seem to make it into the English-language conversation about Colombia. WOLA commentaries would fill a big gap, along with the colombiapeace.org explainer “cards” discussed above.
- Write a mini-report with “everything we know about the US military at the border right now.” Use the above “online resource” to aggregate everything we know about the National Guard’s “Joint Task Force Guardian Support,” the regular military’s “Border Support” deployment, the military role in building border fencing, and concerns that have been raised about posse comitatus and the proper role of military personnel on U.S. soil. Augment this information with a few phone interviews. Turn that into a commentary at wola.org. Google around, and you’ll find a surprising lack of recent information about the 5,000-plus-person U.S. military deployment at the border (other than the 160 additional troops announced last week).
- Launch a new research effort into the troubled institutional culture of CBP and Border Patrol. This is a big interest of mine. We hear a lot of the same complaints about abusive behavior and attitudes—and lack of accountability—about U.S. border authorities that we hear about some Latin American security forces. In both cases, these institutions have many great, admirable people working within them, but the cruel and abusive people working alongside them get protected and at times rewarded and held up as heroes. Also, both seem to have developed some rather twisted views about whom their adversaries are (asylum seekers? journalists?). I want to start digging harder on the “culture” question. Aggregating information from the “online resource” described above, we could tie together the work that others have done and what has been reported in the media, IG reports, and elsewhere over the past couple of years. We could scour what the agencies’ defenders say. We can do more work with former agents who’ve turned whistleblower. We can learn from those who’ve studied management and accountability turnarounds in big institutions, especially security institutions. Once we’ve determined what we still need to know, we can push hard for answers. We can write a preliminary report at WOLA’s website, and add a dedicated page to the “online resource” above.
- Improve my own “infosec.” As the quality of U.S. democracy declines, protecting data and communications becomes ever more important. About a month ago I spent $90 on a tiny 2014 Chromebook laptop, and installed a free-and-open Linux distribution on it (which runs really fast on the old hardware). The idea was to have a cheap, safe machine that is virtually uncrackable, which I would bring with me when I travel—and if I could get used to it, to make this the operating system for my next “real” laptop. In recent weeks, though, I haven’t had time to set the device up—installing the apps I’d use every day—much less to learn the ins and outs of Debian Linux and using the command line more often. Now, though, there may be time to learn.
Anyway, you get the idea. There’s way more here than I could hope to take on during this weird semi-sabbatical that many of us are finding ourselves taking. But the requirement to avoid travel and meetings will make at least some of these ideas a reality. I look forward to moving on those.