At the beginning of the month, I recorded a reflective podcast with WOLA’s outgoing president, Geoff Thale. As a counterpart to that, here’s a conversation with our incoming president, Carolina Jiménez. We talk about her past work as a human rights advocate in Venezuela and Mexico, how civil society has evolved throughout Latin America, the threat of authoritarianism, opportunities in US policy, and her next (or first) steps at WOLA.
The conversation addresses Carolina’s Venezuelan roots and the international experience that led her to pursuing a career in human rights, concerning trends across the Latin America, and the United States’ complicated legacy and present role in supporting positive initiatives in the region.
They also discuss WOLA’s upcoming Human Rights Awards ceremony and the Colombian groups that will be honored. The discussion paints a picture of what organizations working for human rights are doing to collaborate in a new era, and what the future of advocacy for human rights in Latin America may hold.
I was in El Paso on June 28 and 29 with Joy Olson, WOLA’s former executive director. Joy went on to the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas, and to Tamaulipas across the border. We came away from that trip feeling saddened and outraged with some very strong opinions, which you can hear in the latest WOLA Podcast. It’s a lively one.
Stories about the U.S.-Mexico border have fallen out of the headlines, but extremely high numbers of migrants continue to arrive at our southern border seeking asylum in the United States. While they’re there, however, they left without protection and are targeted by criminal groups who regularly kidnap migrants to extort money. Many international organizations no longer visit parts of the border because they have been deemed too dangerous.
This week, Adam speaks with Joy Olson, former director of WOLA, who just returned from the border where she carried out dozens of interviews . She came back saddened by expelled migrants’ suffering, perplexed by the Biden administration’s halting measures, and calling for bold policy changes.. They discuss migrant kidnappings, metering, the mechanics of expulsions under Title 42, and what can be done to improve conditions for migrants at the border and improve the U.S. asylum system.
The latest WOLA Podcast is about Peru, where presidential elections are happening on Sunday. I started by asking WOLA Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt, a political scientist at George Mason University, “Is it really a Leninist versus a corrupt right winger?” She said, “pretty much,” and we went on from there.
Peruvians go to the polls on June 6 for a runoff election between two presidential candidates who, in April 11 first-round voting, combined for barely 30 percent of the vote. The candidates, Pedro Castillo and Keiko Fujimori, represent ideological extremes in a country hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, which both heightened and highlighted gaping social divisions and failures of the past 30 years’ economic model.
Many thanks to Camila Asano, the program director at the São Paulo-based think tank Conectas, for joining WOLA’s podcast. Her country is going through a historically difficult—tragic—moment, and she explains why civil society there is a last bulwark against authoritarianism. We must accompany and protect many very brave people during this dark moment.
Thanks as well to WOLA Program Assistant Moses Ngong, who is playing a bigger role in helping me put these podcasts out. Here’s the text of the podcast landing page at wola.org.
Brazil is the second largest country in the hemisphere, but its many complex issues rarely make news in the U.S. In this episode of the WOLA podcast, Camila Asano, Director of Programs at the Brazilian human rights NGO Conectas, joins Adam Isacson and Moses Ngong to discuss recent and ongoing attacks on human rights and democracy in Brazil.
The conversation covers a handful of key issues facing the country today, including:
How President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration has worked to antagonize and criminalize human rights defenders
What the impact of COVID has been on the country, and the government’s poor response
President Bolsonaro’s authoritarian actions attacking democracy and consolidating power
I recorded a very good conversation with my colleague Gimena Sánchez, who I don’t think has slept since Colombia’s protests—and the government’s crackdown—began on April 28. She does a masterful job explaining what’s going on. Here’s the text of the podcast landing page at wola.org.
Protests that began April 28 in Colombia are maintaining momentum and a broad base of support, despite a heavy-handed government response. Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, WOLA’s Director for the Andes, sees a movement coalescing—and a need for a more decisive U.S. approach.
This conversation, recorded on May 13, explains the different factors contributing to the crisis at the country enters its third week of protests and the number of dead or missing—almost entirely protestors—continues to increase. It also touches on the larger context of protests that were already taking place in Colombia’s more rural/indigenous area, paramilitary responses to the protestors, and contextualizes indigenous frustration in Colombia. The discussion ends with the prospect for change in Colombia, and how the Biden administration has responded so far.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Tone – with 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 Migration – with 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 fight – with 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 Space – with 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?
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.
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.
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.