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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WOLA Podcast: Demining sacred space in Colombia’s Amazon basin

Nice to have a podcast coincide with a short film’s debut on the New Yorker website. Congratulations to Tom Laffay for this piece of work. The WOLA podcast page is here.

Tom Laffay is an American filmmaker based in Bogotá, recipient of the inaugural 2020 Andrew Berends Fellowship. In 2018, his short film, Nos están matando (They’re killing us), which exposed the plight of Colombian social leaders, reached the halls of the U.S. Congress and the United Nations in Geneva.

This film was commissioned by The New Yorker and supported by The Pulitzer Center.

In this edition of WOLA’s podcast, Laffay discusses his new short film, Siona: Amazon’s Defenders Under Threat. The New Yorker featured it on its website on June 25, 2020. Laffay follows Siona Indigenous leader Adiela Mera Paz in Putumayo, Colombia, as she works to demine her ancestral territory to make it possible for her people displaced by the armed conflict to return. Though the armed conflict with the FARC may have officially ended, the Siona people not only face post-conflict risks, they also face threats from extractive companies. In the episode, Laffay describes the history of the Siona people and their territory, their relationship with yagé, and the courageous work undertaken by leaders like Adiela Mera Paz.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

WOLA Podcast: Challenges and Tools for Latin America’s Struggle for Equality

The defense of LGBT rights in Latin America is a topic to which I’ve paid insufficient attention. I’m glad that Carlos Quesada of Race and Equality was able to record this WOLA podcast with me, which I posted on Tuesday. Here’s the text from WOLA’s website.

Carlos Quesada, director of the International Institute on Race, Equality, and Human Rights, guides us through the challenges faced by Latin America’s LGBT communities and other marginalized groups. He also explains how laws, treaties, and the Inter-American system offer tools for change—or survival.

We discuss cultural and political challenges to winning rights and recognition, basic obstacles to gaining basic protections, an ongoing backlash in some countries, and concerns about the effects of COVID-19 response and changes in U.S. policy. More encouragingly, we talk about how Race and Equality brings technical assistance to partners in the region, helping them use the tools offered by their governments’ legal and international commitments, particularly through the Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights.

Listen above or download the .mp3 file here.

WOLA Podcast: A Crucial Moment for Guatemala’s Fight Against Impunity

Guatemala is selecting new supreme court justices. The stakes are very high: fighting the corruption that drives so much migration will be much harder if the country gets this wrong. Here, my colleague Adriana Beltran and I talk to three people who are leading the fight from civil society.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file here. Here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

Last year at the US-Mexico border, authorities apprehended more undocumented migrants from Guatemala than from any other country. That’s mostly because of a combination of poverty and violence. That in turn is exacerbated by corruption, which drains national wealth and benefits networks of political and economic power that, too often, are above the law.

People in Guatemala are trying to change that. They’re the ones who made important justice improvements alongside the CICIG, the international commission against impunity in Guatemala, which was ejected from the country last year. They’re still fighting, and this podcast talks to three of them. They are:

  • Helen Mack, the president of the Myrna Mack Foundation. A longtime leader in Guatemala’s fight for human rights, Helen founded her organization in 1993, three years after the army killed her sister, anthropologist Myrna Mack. Helen is one of Guatemala’s principal experts on judicial and police reform.
  • Harald Waxenecker is a sociologist who investigates networks of power and criminality in Guatemala and El Salvador, which is dangerous but necessary work.
  • Claudia Escobar is a former magistrate of Guatemala’s court of appeals who played a central role in some of the country’s most high-profile corruption investigations during the mid-2010s.

They’re together with Adriana Beltran, the principal host of this podcast episode. Beltran is WOLA’s director for citizen security, has worked for many years in Guatemala, and played an instrumental role in building international support for the CICIG.

Guatemala has hit a key turning point for the fight against impunity the Congress is selecting a new slate of supreme court justices. There’s a real danger that some of the country’s most corrupt elements might choose those who will judge them for the next five years. Much is in the balance here: further erosion of the rule of law will mean more misery in Guatemala, and more migration away from Guatemala.

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

WOLA Podcast: “If they can kill Berta Cáceres, they can kill anybody”: Nina Lakhani on the Danger to Social Leaders

I’ve always enjoyed talking to Nina Lakhani over the years as she produced excellent reporting from Mexico and Central America for The Guardian. And I enjoyed recording this podcast with her two weeks ago, as she prepared for the release of her book Who Killed Berta Cáceres: Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet (2020, Verso).

The book is out today. Pick up a copy, listen above or by downloading the .mp3 file, and read my review.

Here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast website:

Latin America is one of the most dangerous regions in the world to be a human rights defender. In March 2016, Berta Cáceres – a much-admired environmental and indigenous leader from Honduras – was assassinated. Cáceres was a courageous leader, winner of the 2015 Goldman Prize for her efforts to stop dam construction on a river sacred to her Lenca people. But the assassinations of leaders like Berta are rarely investigated or prosecuted all the way to the masterminds. Government, criminal, and economic interests work to silence activists like her.

In this edition of Latin America Today, Nina Lakhani joins Adam Isacson for a discussion on her new book out on June 2, Who Killed Berta Cáceres: Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet (2020, Verso). Lakhani is a veteran journalist whose work has brought to light corruption, state-sponsored violence, and impunity throughout Mexico and Central America. She is currently the Environmental Justice correspondent for The Guardian U.S.

Here, Lakhani talks about why she chose to write about Berta and her lifelong activism, helps us understand the multifaceted Honduran context and why social leaders like Berta are targeted, and provides in-depth analysis of her investigations into Berta’s assassination. The conversation ends with Lakhani’s outlook on how the upcoming U.S. presidential elections may affect accountability on what she calls “impunity on every level.”

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

WOLA Podcast on Venezuela

It’s great to have two Venezuela experts on staff to explain what’s happening there. With great nuance, rare clarity, and zero shouting.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file here. The text from the WOLA landing page is below.

This podcast, WOLA’s first to focus on Venezuela since January, features Geoff Ramsey, WOLA’s director for Venezuela, and David Smilde, a WOLA senior fellow specializing in Venezuela. (Dr. Smilde is the Charles A. and Leo M. Favrot Professor of Human Relations at Tulane University.)

This situation report covers a lot of ground. Ramsey and Smilde explain the current humanitarian situation in Venezuela, with the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic likely to come, along with the effect of sanctions. The discussion moves on to alternatives, like what it would take to bring the country’s ever-worsening crisis to a political solution. This brings up the role of external powers like Russia, China, Iran, and the United States. Ramsey and Smilde unpack the current state of U.S. policy, which at the White House level is heavily driven by Florida electoral politics. They note that the Trump administration’s mixed messages are inadvertently dividing a Venezuelan opposition that is already in a bad moment after a botched mercenary invasion at the beginning of May.

Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde co-manage WOLA’s Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog. Also mentioned in the podcast is a May 2020 paper that both co-authored in the European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, which explores the recent history and theory of negotiation efforts in Venezuela, as well as prospects and necessary conditions for a negotiated solution today.

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

WOLA Podcast with Rep. Jim McGovern: “What if I was in Colombia? Would I have the courage to say what I believe?”

It’s not every day you get to record a podcast with a member of Congress. I enjoyed sitting down virtually this morning with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), a longtime advocate of human rights in Colombia. He was fired up about the outrageous recent scandal involving U.S.-aided army intelligence units spying on Colombian reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, and others.

He calls here for a suspension of U.S. military aid and a much clearer U.S. commitment to implementing Colombia’s 2016 peace accords and protecting its threatened social leaders.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file. The text from WOLA’s website is after the photo (from 2017 in Cauca).

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), the co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the U.S. Congress, is a longtime advocate of human rights, worldwide and in Latin America.

McGovern joins WOLA in this episode for a conversation about Colombia, a country to which he has traveled several times, and where he was one of the House of Representatives’ leading advocates for the negotiations that ended with a peace accord in 2016.

We’re talking weeks after new revelations that U.S.-aided Colombian military intelligence units had been spying on human rights defenders, journalists, judges, politicians, and even fellow officers. The Congressman calls for a suspension of U.S. military assistance to Colombia while the U.S. government undertakes a top-to-bottom, “penny by penny” review of the aid program. “If there’s not a consequence, there’s no incentive to change,” he explains.

He calls for the Colombian government and the international community to do far more to protect the country’s beleaguered human rights defenders, to change course on an unsuccessful drug policy, and to fulfill the peace accords’ commitments. Human rights, Rep. McGovern concludes, should be at the center of the U.S.-Colombia bilateral relationship.

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

WOLA Podcast: “How do we define success?” Jonathan Rosen on governments’ approaches to organized crime

I had a fun conversation yesterday with Jonathan Rosen. Here’s the description from WOLA’s site:

Jonathan Rosen, assistant professor of Criminal Justice at Holy Family University in Philadelphia, has published a large body of books, articles, and edited volumes in the past several years on drug policy, organized crime, corruption, state failure, and violence in the Americas.

Here, Dr. Rosen shares a strong critique of “mano dura” approaches to crime and violence, the disjointed and short-term nature of U.S. policymaking toward Latin America, and the persistence of counter-drug strategies that simply don’t work.

He also discusses his experience as an expert witness in about 100 asylum cases involving threatened Latin American citizens in immigration courts around the country.

Listen above or download the .mp3 file.

WOLA Podcast: Practicing Asylum Law in El Paso: “MPP is just—it’s utterly insane”

I enjoyed recording this conversation with someone I admire a lot, El Paso-based asylum attorney Taylor Levy. Here’s the narrative from the WOLA podcast web page:

In mid-2019 the Trump administration ramped up its “Remain in Mexico” program, forcing tens of thousands of non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their hearing dates in Mexican border cities. In order to do her job, Taylor Levy, an asylum attorney in El Paso, Texas, found herself spending most of her time on the other side of the border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

This gave Levy a firsthand look at the cruelties of the Trump administration’s war on the right to seek asylum at the border—some of them dramatic and shocking, some of them everyday outrages.

In March 2020, when the spread of COVID-19 made a border closure look more likely, Levy relocated to Ciudad Juárez in order to serve her clients. She remained there until the pandemic forced the hotel where she was staying to close down.

In this podcast, Taylor Levy shares some of her recent experiences and some dire warnings about what is to come. Hers is a gripping testimony about what it is like to be on the ground in the middle of one of the worst human rights crises in recent Latin American history—one created by U.S. policy.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

WOLA Podcast: “These moments of social resistance are never moments. They have long histories.”

Winifred Tate, an anthropologist at Colby College and former WOLA staff member, is one of the country’s top experts on Colombia. She is the author of 2 books about Colombia: Counting the Dead, about the human rights movement in the country, and Drugs, Thugs, and Diplomats, about how U.S. policy toward Colombia gets made and how human rights groups have dealt with it. Tate has worked on Colombia from two perspectives: as a scholar, but also as an advocate, which gives her a unique perspective.

Here, she talks about the origins of Colombia’s human rights movement and the pros and cons of “professionalizing” defense of human rights. She discusses the importance of community-based organizing and the work of women activists in a very conflictive part of the country. The conversation delves into continuities in U.S. policy, especially Washington’s preference for military solutions to complex problems.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

WOLA Podcast: COVID-19, Anti-Democratic Trends, and Human Rights Concerns

Podcasts are coming back after a two-week break. There’ll be a few over the coming week.

For this one, I wrangled together four of my WOLA colleagues to take the temperature of politics and human rights in the region a month and a half into the COVID-19 lockdown. It’s really grim, and challenging to end on an optimistic note. But listen to it and you will learn a lot. Here’s the description from WOLA’s website:

COVID-19 threatens to take many lives in Latin America. It also threatens to leave behind a less democratic, less rights-respecting, more unequal, and more violent region.

An April 13 WOLA commentary laid out many of these concerns. If anything, they’ve grown more urgent since then. Here, five WOLA program directors gather for a discussion of where things stand in several countries in the region.

  • Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson talks about El Salvador.
  • Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli discusses Colombia, Brazil, and Haiti.
  • Director for Venezuela Geoff Ramsey covers Venezuela.
  • Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights Maureen Meyer provides an update about Mexico and the border.
  • Director for Drug Policy and the Andes John Walsh explains drug trafficking trends and the situation in Bolivia.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

WOLA Podcast: Democracy, Displacement, and “Political Cleansing” in Colombia’s Armed Conflict

Here’s a great conversation with Abbey Steele of the University of Amsterdam’s Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences who, as she notes, was my intern at the Center for International Policy way back in the fall of 2000. (Deep in the archives are 3 memos she co-authored during her internship: here, here, and here.)

Today, Abbey is a professor at the University of Amsterdam’s Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences, a scholar of violence and politics who has done most of her work in Colombia. She is the author of Democracy and Displacement in Colombia’s Civil War (2017, Cornell University Press).

In this episode, she discusses her work in Apartadó, in Colombia’s Urabá region, which saw forced displacement by paramilitary groups intensify after Colombia began direct local elections and leftist parties performed well. She calls what happened “political cleansing” or “collective targeting”: the paramilitaries targeted entire communities for displacement based on election results.

She explains this and other findings, particularly how communities have organized to resist the onslaught. She has a sharp analysis of the challenges that continue for the displaced—and for communities and social leaders at risk of political cleansing—today, in post-peace-accord Colombia.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

WOLA Podcast: “This is patently illegal”: The undermining of asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border

I do a lot of work at the border, but the skills I bring are more about the role of security forces like Border Patrol and the military, use of force, human rights, and accountability. I am not an expert in immigration law.

In the past few years, one of the main battlegrounds on border policy—more important even than Trump’s wall—has been on a key aspect of immigration law: the right to seek asylum. Since this isn’t my specialty, I’ve been shocked, and occasionally quite confused, about how the Trump administration has managed to systematically do away with asylum at the border, without changing a word of U.S. law.

I wanted to record a podcast with someone who could explain this clearly, to me and to WOLA’s audience. So I was delighted that Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, an immigration attorney who is the policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, agreed to join me and walk me through the complexity. If you’re on Twitter at all and follow the border or immigration, Aaron’s is probably a familiar avatar.

He explains why a right to ask for asylum exists in U.S. law, and how the asylum system is supposed to work, from arrival at the border through the U.S. immigration court system. He then explains the steps that the Trump administration has taken, at every step of the asylum process, to steadily decimate the right to seek protection at the US-Mexico border.

Aaron does a brilliant job here. As I say in the conversation, teachers should assign this episode in schools. Highly recommended.

Listen up above, or download the .mp3 file.

WOLA Podcast: Protecting Civilians from Harm

Here’s a podcast that I recorded last Wednesday and am pleased to post now.

How to minimize harm to civilians during armed conflict is a challenge WOLA faces frequently. That has especially been the case in Colombia, the only formally defined armed conflict in the Americas in recent years. But many Latin American countries are places where civilians are falling victim to violence in devastating numbers right now—even if the situation of insecurity doesn’t meet the international law definition of “armed conflict.”

How do we minimize harm to social leaders, human rights defenders, and all other non-combatants in these situations of violence? The Center for Civilians in Conflict, or CIVIC, is dedicated to this question. Founded in 2003 to advocate for civilian victims of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, CIVIC engages with armed actors and with communities to minimize harm. Virtually all of its work so far has taken place outside of the Western Hemisphere, but that may soon change.

To talk about what minimizing civilian harm could look like in Latin America’s not-quite-armed-conflict contexts, the Podcast talks to Protection Innovation Fellow Annie Shiel, who was a founding member of the State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor’s Office of Security and Human Rights; and with Mike Lettieri of the University of California at San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, who is working with CIVIC to develop approaches to work in Latin America.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

WOLA Podcast: COVID-19, Communities, and Human Rights in Colombia

(Photo from Colombia Army Twitter account)

As of early April 2020, Colombia has documented a relatively low number of coronavirus cases, and in cities at least, the country has taken on strict social distancing measures.

This has not meant that Colombia’s embattled social leaders and human rights defenders are any safer. WOLA’s latest urgent action memo, released on April 10, finds that “killings and attacks on social leaders and armed confrontations continue and have become more targeted. We are particularly concerned about how the pandemic will affect already marginalized Afro-Colombian and indigenous minorities in rural and urban settings.”

In this edition of the WOLA Podcast, that memo’s author, Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, explains the danger to social leaders, the shifting security situation, the ceasefire declared by the ELN guerrillas, the persistence of U.S.-backed coca eradication operations, and how communities are organizing to respond to all of this.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file here.

Podcast: Latin America and the Crisis of Globalization and Multilateralism

Here’s a tri-continental podcast that I recorded yesterday and posted today. It was fun to do, especially since the tech mostly held up.

paper published in March by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s Latin America Regional Security Program takes stock of the complicated geopolitical, institutional, economic, and social moment that Latin America and the Caribbean today. It examines the crisis of democratic institutions, the United States’ hard turn toward unilateralism, the growing roles of China and Russia, and the impending effect of phenomena like climate change, automation, and artificial intelligence.

This podcast talks about all of this with the paper’s three authors, scattered across three continents:

  • In Santiago: Marcos Robledo, co-director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation project, is a Chilean security expert who served in Chile’s defense ministry, including as a vice-minister, during Michelle Bachelet’s time as minister and as president.
  • In Washington: Rebecca Bill Chávez is a defense expert who served in the Pentagon as deputy secretary of defense for western hemisphere affairs during Barack Obama’s second term.
  • In Oslo: Mariano Aguirre, former director of the Norwegian Peacebuilding Center, NOREF, who has worked for the UN Resident Representative’s office  in Bogotá and managed research efforts in Spain, in the Netherlands, and elsewhere. Aguirre is a member of WOLA’s board of directors.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

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