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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On NPR talking about the ICE nominee

The Biden administration has named reformist border-state sheriffs to head CBP and ICE—two agencies in serious need of reform. If confirmed, they may face real friction with management and rank-and-file. Great conversation about this today with Michel Martin on NPR’s All Things Considered.

WOLA Podcast: The Complexity of Engaging with Central America

The birds in my backyard and I recorded a podcast with two WOLA colleagues who are longtime experts on Central America, just as the Biden administration goes into overdrive on a big new policy push to address the reasons why so many people migrate from the region. Here’s the text from the podcast landing page.

Top Biden administration officials, including Vice President Harris, are developing a new approach to Central America. The theme is familiar: addressing migration’s “root causes.” Violence and corruption, as well as relatively new factors such as climate change, have caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes seeking a better life.

This week’s podcast focuses both on the factors displacing people as well as what the U.S. government’s plans to address the displacement. Our President, Geoff Thale, as well as our director for Citizen Security, Adriana Beltran, talk with Adam Isacson about the Biden administration’s short and long-term plans for the region, what can be done to implement an effective anti-corruption strategy, how to protect marginalized groups/human rights defenders, and the political considerations that come with legislating on an issue that will certainly last beyond Biden’s time in office.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotifyiHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

WOLA Podcast: “The Border Situation Viewed from Mexico”

The WOLA Podcast continues to cover the situation at the border, this time what’s happening in Mexico. There, the Biden administration has been leaning on the national government to send more security forces and accept more expelled Central American families. I gathered four colleagues for what turned out to be a really informative discussion about the current moment, and it’s not good.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

As migrants from Central American countries flee instability at home, Mexico is increasingly a final destination for them. COMAR, the Mexican refugee agency, received a record number of asylum requests in March 2021. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has struck deals with Mexico (and other regional governments) to militarize its southern border. The consequences of such deals means migrants will face more dangers in their journey north, including from state actors.

Despite the unfortunate response from regional governments, non-governmental actors are working hard to ensure that migrants lucky enough to make it into Mexico or the United States are supported and treated with dignity. This conversation details what is happening on the ground in Mexico, as well as what civilian groups in the United States are doing to support the first people to enter the United States as “Remain in Mexico” winds down.

We are joined by four WOLA staff experts:

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

WOLA Podcast: “People coming from the Western Hemisphere have been perceived as inherently not refugees”

Yael Shacher, senior U.S. advocate at Refugees International, is a historian of U.S. asylum policy. She offers an invaluable perspective on the current increase in asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, and how the system should work. That’s hugely important right now as the US-Mexico border is seeing another big increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving, mostly from Central America.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

As the number of asylum-seeking children and families at the U.S.-Mexico border rises for the fourth time since 2014—and as the U.S. government once again responds chaotically—we need to step back and look at the U.S. migration and asylum system. It is clearly inadequate for receiving this population.

We do that in this episode with an expert colleague, Yael Schacher of Refugees International, a historian of U.S. asylum law and policy. Shacher makes many points in this conversation that don’t get enough attention in the current discussion of the border and protection-seeking migration. She notes that U.S. asylum laws were not written with people fleeing the Western Hemisphere in mind. An asylum system adapting to today’s realities, she adds, would abandon “expedited removal” and give a greater role to asylum officers in adjudicating cases—fairly, but more quickly than backlogged immigration courts. And the whole conception of how asylum seekers are received should change.

In this episode Yael Shacher shares many other observations and recommendations, steeped in an understanding of the history of how we got here. Most would not require a change in existing law as much as changes in attitudes and resource allocations. These inputs come at an important time as the Biden administration gradually dismantles the Trump administration’s policies and reviews broader changes to asylum, even while child and family arrivals increase.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

WOLA Podcast: A Critical Moment for El Salvador’s Democracy

With an assist from WOLA’s president, Geoff Thale, I booked a fantastic but deeply troubling conversation with two fighters for democracy in El Salvador, Mauricio Silva and José Luis Sanz. This is a rough moment for a democracy born at a moment of hope, when El Salvador negotiated the end of its conflict in the early 90s.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

El Salvador’s citizens go to the polls on February 28 to elect a new legislature and mayors. Nuevas Ideas, the party of President Nayib Bukele, is expected to gain a strong majority. This raises concerns because Bukele, though quite popular, is eroding institutional checks and balances, blocking access to information, infringing on independent media and freedom of expression, and politicizing the armed forces.

The implications for U.S. policy are significant, as the new Biden administration proposes a four-year, $4 billion package of assistance to strengthen democracy and the rule of law, along with similar priorities, in Central America.

We discuss this with two experts who give us a comprehensive view of what’s at stake:

  • Mauricio Silva, a member of WOLA’s Board of DIrectors, worked at the Inter-American Development Bank for 20 years, 10 of them as a member of the IDB’s Board as director for El Salvador and Central America.
  • José Luis Sanz, a veteran investigative journalist, was the director of the independent media outlet El Faro (The Beacon) between 2014 and late 2020. He is moving to Washington to serve as El Faro’s correspondent.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

WPR Podcast: Biden Confronts Trump’s Disastrous Legacy on Immigration

I joined World Politics Review’s Elliot Waldman on Monday (February 8) to talk about the Biden administration’s plans for undoing the damage that the Trump administration did to the border and to the U.S. asylum system. The challenges are complicated, the situation in Central America is dire, migration is increasing—but it is absolutely imperative that the promise of last week’s executive orders be fulfilled.

We talk about all of that here. Many thanks to Elliot and World Politics Review for having me on the show, and for turning it around so quickly—this is a fast-moving story right now.

Note to self for future recordings: don’t have a big glass of orange juice just before recording. I sound a bit froggy at times here, and was muting myself to clear my throat when Elliot asked me questions. That was dumb.

WOLA podcast—Mexico: the meaning of the Cienfuegos case

Whether you’ve been following this absolutely ridiculous chapter in U.S.-Mexico relations, or whether this is new to you, I recommend this conversation with my newest colleague at WOLA, Mexico and Migrant Rights Director Stephanie Brewer.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

As the Biden administration takes the reins of U.S. foreign policy, relations with Mexico are in an unusually turbulent period. In October, U.S. agents arrested Mexico’s previous defense secretary, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, in the Los Angeles airport. He had been indicted for allegedly working with narcotraffickers. but after an intense pressure campaign by the Mexican government, the Justice Department dropped the charges and let the General return to Mexico. On January 14, Mexico’s chief prosecutor dropped all charges and investigations against Cienfuegos. Then, the Mexican government put the DEA’s evidence file on the internet. Meanwhile, Mexico passed a law putting strict curbs on what U.S. security and counter-drug agents can do in the country.

The Cienfuegos case tells us a lot about the power of Mexico’s military, the independence of its new chief prosecutor, and the near future of the U.S.-Mexico relationship. To explain all of this, we’re joined by WOLA’s new director for Mexico and Migrant rights, Stephanie Brewer. Stephanie also published an explainer brief about the Cienfuegos case on January 19.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

“The Transition”: a four-volume WOLA podcast miniseries

In the weeks after the U.S. election was called for Joe Biden, I asked my colleagues at WOLA to join me for a series of podcasts. Following the four topics of a series of panels that WOLA hosted over the summer, we looked at some of the main challenges the new administration is sure to face—and how it might break with history and handle them differently this time.

I’m really glad I did these, and that eight of my co-workers took the time to join me. Though I’m still learning about audio quality (these are perfectly listenable but you can see why NPR spends so much on fancy studios), I’m delighted that we now have more than two and a half hours of high-quality analysis from people who are really paying attention to what’s going on. These four .mp3 files form an amazing snapshot of U.S.-Latin America relations on the threshold between two very different U.S. presidencies.

Each of the podcast player widgets below has a little download button (the down-arrow) so you can save the .mp3s. You can always find all of WOLA’s podcasts, going back to 2011, here. Or subscribe using your podcast player, we’re on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you listen to podcasts. The main feed is here.


November 16: U.S. Credibility, Cooperation, and a Changed Tonewith WOLA’s President, Geoff Thale; Vice President for Programs Maureen Meyer; Director for Drug Policy and the Andes John Walsh; Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt; and Venezuela Program Assistant Kristen Martinez-Gugerli.

Even as the Biden administration adopts a changed tone in its relations with the region, there may be some surprising continuities from the Trump years. And the United States, beset domestically with political polarization, human rights controversies, and mismanagement of a public health emergency, suffers from reduced influence and credibility in the region.


November 23: A Rational, Region-Wide Approach to Migrationwith Vice-President for Programs Maureen Meyer.

Trump’s hardline on migration policy is giving way to what promises to be a more humane and managerial approach under Biden. How profound that change will be remains unclear, though, as the United States and the rest of the hemisphere adjust to a reality of high levels of migration, and as the drivers of migration region-wide continue to accelerate.


December 1: The future of Latin America’s anti-corruption fightwith Director for Citizen Security Adriana Beltrán and Mexico Program Assistant Moses Ngong.

Focusing particularly on Mexico and Central America, we discuss who the region’s anti-corruption reformers are, the challenges they face, and how the United States and other international actors can best support them. A key point for the Biden administration is that other policy goals in the Americas will be impossible to achieve without a determined approach to corruption that upholds reformers.


December 11: Authoritarianism, Populism, and Closing Civic Spacewith WOLA’s president, Geoff Thale, and its director for Venezuela, Geoff Ramsey.

For the first time in decades, Latin America is becoming less democratic, amid a rise in populism, authoritarianism, and militarism. The U.S. role in upholding democracy and civic space has been inconsistent at best, and other regional institutions haven’t performed much better. How can the Biden administration change course?

WOLA Podcast: The Transition: Authoritarianism, Populism, and Closing Civic Space

Here’s a great episode closing out a four-part cycle in which we look at what confronts U.S. policy toward Latin America during this sharp break of a presidential transition. Thanks to Geoff Thale and Geoff Ramsey for joining me here.

I’m also happy that I finally figured out the “reduce noise” filter on the Audacity sound editing app. Makes a difference.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

This is part four of a four-part podcast miniseries looking at key issues facing U.S. policy toward Latin America, as Washington transitions from the Trump era to the Biden administration.

This episode focuses on the state of democracy and civic space in the region. For the first time in decades, Latin America is becoming less democratic, amid a rise in populism, authoritarianism, and militarism. The U.S. role in upholding democracy and civic space has been inconsistent at best, and other regional institutions haven’t performed much better. How can the Biden administration change course?

Host Adam Isacson talks about this with WOLA’s president, Geoff Thale, and its director for Venezuela, Geoff Ramsey.

Hear Geoff Ramsey’s and the Venezuela program’s new Venezuela Briefing podcast. And here, view the video of President Trump meeting with regional leaders that Ramsey mentions in this episode’s discussion.

Earlier episodes of this “transition” podcast series covered U.S. credibility (November 16), migration (November 23), and corruption (December 1).

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

WOLA Podcast: When your neighbor is a murderer: Sean Mattison on “escrache” in Argentina

I enjoyed this conversation about victims’ activism in Argentina with filmmaker Sean Mattison. The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

The New York Times featured a short film by Sean Mattison about Argentina. Atención! Murderer Next Door, posted on November 10, 2020, tells the story of HIJOS, a group of children of victims of Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, who started using a novel technique in the 1990s to pressure for an end to the amnesty that the armed forces’ torturers and killers enjoyed at the time.

Those responsible for the dictatorship’s campaign of tens of thousands of forced disappearances were living side-by-side with regular citizens. HIJOS and other activists started using direct action, gathering outside the perpetrators’ homes and workplaces and making clear to all that “a murderer lives here.”

They called this increasingly creative method “escrache,” which as Mattison explains here doesn’t translate well into English. Escrache worked: it helped build pressure for President Néstor Kirchner to end the post-dictatorship amnesty law in 2003. Argentina has now sentenced more military human rights abusers than has any other Latin American country.

As Mattison discusses, escrache has caught on elsewhere. Versions of escrache are already being aimed at Trump administration officials who led abuses like family separation. While it is not a perfect tool or an appropriate form of activism for all circumstances, it deserves a closer look, which is a future direction for Sean Mattison’s work.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

WOLA Podcast: The Transition: The future of Latin America’s anti-corruption fight

Here’s a third WOLA podcast in which, as the United States pivots between two very different administrations, we step back and take stock of things. In this one, I talk to my colleagues Adriana Beltrán and Moses Ngong about the region’s fight against corruption: how unpunished corruption underlies so many other problems, who is fighting it, and how we must support them internationally with all we’ve got.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

The United States is in a transition period between the Trump and Biden administrations. For U.S.-Latin American relations, this will mean a sharp shift between two very different visions of how Washington should work with the hemisphere.

In this episode, a third in a series about the transition, we talk about corruption and efforts to fight it. WOLA Director for Citizen Security Adriana Beltrán and Mexico Program Assistant Moses Ngong call corruption “endemic: a system, a network, a web of relations” that underlies many other problems in Latin America, from insecurity, to susceptibility to natural disasters, to forced migration.

Focusing particularly on Mexico and Central America, we discuss who the region’s anti-corruption reformers are, the challenges they face, and how the United States and other international actors can best support them. A key point for the Biden administration is that other policy goals in the Americas will be impossible to achieve without a determined approach to corruption that upholds reformers.

The work of WOLA’s Mexico and Citizen Security programs often takes on corruption. Resources mentioned in the podcast include:

This is the second of a series of discussions in which the podcast will talk about the transition. Last week, we covered migration, and the week before we talked about U.S. credibility and the tone of relations. Next week, the series’ final episode will take on the state of human rights and democracy.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

WOLA Podcast: The Transition: A Rational, Region-Wide Approach to Migration

Here’s a second WOLA podcast in which, as the United States pivots between two very different administrations, we step back and take stock of things. In this one, Maureen Meyer and I talk about a huge topic: migration. In particular, how to adapt to the “new normal” and respond humanely.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page.

The United States is in the transition period between the Biden and Trump administrations. For U.S.-Latin American relations, this will mean a sharp shift between two very different visions of how Washington should work with the hemisphere.

Nowhere is this shift likely to be as sharp as on migration policy, with Trump’s hardline giving way to what promises to be a more humane and managerial approach under Biden. How profound that change will be remains unclear, though, as the United States and the rest of the hemisphere adjust to a reality of high levels of migration, and as the drivers of migration region-wide continue to accelerate.

Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson and Vice-President for Programs Maureen Meyer have collaborated for nine years on WOLA’s border security and migration efforts. Here, they take stock of the region’s “new normal” of heavy migration flows, and the administrative and policy shifts that the Biden administration—and governments and international organizations regionwide—must undergo in order to adapt.

This is the second of a series of discussions in which the podcast will talk about the transition. Last week, we covered U.S. credibility and the tone of relations. In coming weeks we plan to cover anti-corruption, then the state of human rights and democracy.

Two interviews from last Thursday

I enjoyed talking about the border for an hour, on DC poet and all-around-brilliant person Ethelbert Miller’s radio show, on November 19.

And later that same day I was pleased that Cuestión de Poder, on the NTN24 cable network, wanted to dig into the COVID-era expansion of Latin America’s militaries’ roles. We’ll be wrestling with this for a while.

Also, the plants in my home office are thriving right now.

WOLA Podcast—The Transition: U.S. Credibility, Cooperation, and a Changed Tone

I thought it would be a good idea to record a few podcasts with colleagues at WOLA to talk about what this U.S. presidential transition means for Washington’s relations with Latin America. Here’s the first of what should be a series of four: more of an overall view of what Biden can do in a context of diminished U.S. standing and credibility in the region.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page.

The United States is in the transition period between the Biden and Trump administrations. For U.S.-Latin American relations, this will mean a sharp shift between two very different visions of how Washington should work with the hemisphere.

The shift will be sharp in some ways, at least—but not across the board: even amid a changed tone, there may be some surprising continuities. And the United States, beset domestically with political polarization, human rights controversies, and mismanagement of a public health emergency, suffers from reduced influence and credibility in the region.

It’s a complex moment. Discussing it in this episode are WOLA’s President, Geoff Thale; Vice President for Programs Maureen Meyer; Director for Drug Policy and the Andes John Walsh; Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt; and Venezuela Program Assistant Kristin Martinez-Gugerli.

This is the first of a few discussions in which the podcast will talk about the transition. In coming weeks we plan to cover migration and border security; anti-corruption; and the state of human rights and democracy.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotifyiHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

WOLA Podcast: Peru Abruptly Removes Its President

WOLA Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt is back on the podcast to explain—with striking clarity—what the hell just happened in Lima this week, with Peru’s Congress ejecting its president.

The .mp3 file is here. Here’s the narrative text from wola.org:

A supermajority of Peru’s Congress voted on November 9 to force out President Martín Viscarra on grounds of “moral incapacity.” In a country where nearly all presidents since the 1980s have run into serious legal trouble for corruption, Viscarra was seen as relatively cleaner, and enjoyed greater popularity than the Congress. Some analysts view this as an example of Latin America’s ongoing backlash against those who propose even modest anti-corruption reforms. Meanwhile, Peru is suffering one of the world’s highest COVID-19 mortality rates, while elections approach next April.

As street protests gather momentum, the situation in Lima may be even more chaotic than the current post-election drama in Washington. We discuss all of this with Jo-Marie Burt, a senior fellow at WOLA and associate professor of political science at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Dr. Burt is the author of Silencing Civil Society: Political Violence and the Authoritarian State in Peru (2007) and directed Rights Perú, a collaborative research project on human rights prosecutions in Peru.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

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