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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Life

Well that sucks

Well, that’s it. I’m officially the first in my immediate family to get COVID. Though I was one of the 20% or so of passengers to keep his mask on, I blame my flights home from the San Diego border region last Friday.

Symptoms are very mild so far: no fever, some stuffy nose, infrequent cough. Like a moderate cold. I plan to continue much work remotely, but with more rest breaks, as long as it remains this mild.

San Diego Yesterday

Had a good day of meetings in San Diego yesterday with border rights and migration advocates, none of whom I’d seen in person since before the pandemic, and some whom I was very happy to meet for the first time.

No interesting photos of me sitting in meetings, so here’s a photo of the Pacific Ocean instead. It was also my first glimpse of the Pacific since before the pandemic.

We’re spending today in Tijuana.

Makes sense

90% of everything is crap. If you think you don’t like opera, romance novels, TikTok, country music, vegan food, NFTs, keep trying to see if you can find the 10% that is not crap.

Kevin Kelly’s “103 Bits of Advice I Wish I Had Known

Back to the Border

I’m writing on a plane to San Diego. I’ll be spending the rest of the week there and in Tijuana, meeting lots of people whom I either haven’t seen in a long time or am looking forward to meeting for the first time.

There’s a lot to talk about here.

  • Border Patrol and CBP accountability issues
  • How might asylum processing work if Title 42 ends
  • Lessons from the rapid processing of 20,000 Ukrainians
    • Situation of remaining Ukrainians
  • What is happening with all other nationalities who are awaiting a chance to seek asylum?
    • What became of those cleared from the Chaparral Plaza encampment?
    • What is becoming of those forced to “Remain in Mexico” in Tijuana?
    • What nationalities are coming to Tijuana in greatest numbers now?
    • Are shelters keeping up / coping?
  • There are now long-term immigrant communities in Tijuana, especially the Haitians who settled starting in 2016. How are they faring?
  • The security situation in Tijuana seems dire. Lots more military being deployed. What is happening?

Big WOLA border project drops tomorrow

Tomorrow we’re launching a big new WOLA oversight resource about the border. I’ve been working on it for a while. It’s a site presenting a database of hundreds of recent credible allegations of human rights abuse and other improper law enforcement behavior at the U.S.-Mexico border.

It will also include a library of recommended reports and reading about the border, and 50 infographics about the border that I’ve produced over the past couple of years.

No link yet—I’m spending the day doing finishing touches and combing for errors. Stay tuned for more tomorrow.

I’m writing this in a space not owned by a billionaire

  • If I write something on this site and it gets mediocre traffic, 200 people will see it.
  • If I record a podcast for my employer (I prefer “chosen community of colleagues”) and it gets a mediocre number of downloads, 800 people will download it.
  • If I write something on the website of my chosen community of colleagues, and it gets mediocre traffic, 1,000 people will see it.
  • If I post something to my Twitter account and it performs in a mediocre way, 2,000 people will see it. (If it does well, a quarter million people might see it.)

That’s badly backwards, isn’t it? The platform that does the best for me, in terms of “reaching audiences,” is the one that neither I nor my colleagues own.

Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter for $44 billion (imagine how thoroughly infant mortality could be eradicated with $44 billion) is a bright, flashing reminder of how that needs to change.

We should be creating in spaces that we own, not in spaces run by oligarchs for marketers. Those others’ spaces should be more for conversations (hopefully constructive ones) about what we’ve developed elsewhere, in our own spaces.

My personal goal from this point forward to even out the imbalance between the numbers in that bulleted list above. A lot of that means being less lazy: sending a tweet is easier, by design, than writing an open-ended bunch of words like I’m doing now.

I guess I’m just repeating the now overplayed advice to “bring back the blog.” (The format doesn’t necessarily need to be a textual blog, of course.) But I think that advice is still generally right. We should own our ideas and words, and limit Elon Musk’s and Mark Zuckerberg’s properties to being places where we point to, and discuss, ideas and words developed elsewhere.

That’s all to say, expect to see more of me here and less of me on Twitter. Thanks, Elon, for the reminder.

I’ll take it

Delighted that the sun is setting after 5:00PM once again, here in Washington. Up in New York it’s still 4:46.

Snow day

Washington is having its largest snowfall since I think 2019. Here’s what a walk around the neighborhood looks like.

Sadness (and hope)

We don’t do “sad” well here in the United States. We’re not really mourners or grievers. We go great lengths to avoid feeling sadness. “I’ll give you something to cry about” is something parents actually say to their young children. Perhaps it’s the same around the world.

Unless it’s something immediate, like the departure of a loved one, we put our heads down, furrow our brows, and soldier on. We numb with addictions, from alcohol to fentanyl to overwork to social media. (We write blog posts.) We bury.

We avoid feeling sadness, too, out of a sense that it’s a wrong turn: that it’s the opposite of acting to reverse it. That it’s pointless wallowing, or an admission of defeat.

It isn’t, though. Sometimes it’s first necessary to feel the sadness fully. Only then can we work to ease it. Maybe this part of the year is the time to do that. To give in, if only for a moment.

2021 has been another unrelenting year. Even if we haven’t been hit directly by COVID or other, mostly human-caused, tragedies, there’s an ambient sense of loss. Despair has been building up in our peripheral vision. If we look at it directly, we may find that all the little bits of sadness have accreted into a howling mass.

There’s great sadness for everything we lost during the pandemic. More than 800,000 people gone forever, in this country alone—1 in 400—along with all of the contributions they could have made. People who lost their incomes and saw their careers or ambitions derailed. People who lost parents or those they most admired, their sources of stability. People who just feel a lot less rooted and secure than they did two years ago. All the human connections, from classrooms to churches to celebrations, that never got made.

Sadness for the tens of millions deluded into refusing life-saving vaccines and treatments. Sadness for “essential” workers who’ve taken risks every day for us. Sadness for the big share of our population—the non-voters, the “low information,” those forced to work long hours while raising kids, those simply disconnected from their communities—whom our government, at all levels, didn’t make the extra required effort to reach and protect. Sadness for those in poorer countries denied a chance even to obtain vaccines and treatments.

Our planet: the fading-away species, their dwindling habitats, that we’ll never see again. The human victims of climate-related storms and wildfires. The imminent loss of coastal and floodplain communities, and the mass dislocations to come. The unchecked disappearance of rainforests and coral reefs. Humanity’s frustrating incapacity to act collectively on even modest efforts to change behavior. The knowledge that the weakest and most marginalized will bear the worst of it.

The tents going up in our towns, big and small, as the cost of a home slips out of reach. Kids and parents experiencing homelessness just blocks away. The growing addicted population. The numbingly common overdose deaths: more than 10 per hour nationwide. A Congress run by the “more compassionate” party but failing to pass legislation to help Americans falling through the cracks.

The storm clouds of U.S. democracy’s possible extinction in 2022 and 2024, and the paralysis among the majority who must act to prevent it. The marginalized, like Black Americans, LGBT Americans, undocumented Americans, the poorest Americans, whose experience of life here—interactions with police, employers, immigration agents, judges, and now even voting registries—can barely be called “democracy” anyway.

Our leaders’ remarkable inability—or lack of will—to hold accountable people who’ve broken our laws, including those paying no price for inspiring terror at the U.S. Capitol 50 weeks ago. A sad echo of the impunity granted to all who lied their way through the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, through systematic torture, and in the runup to the 2008 financial crisis.

The manufactured suffering of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, whom a Democratic U.S. administration has left homeless and cut off from family and support networks in some of the hemisphere’s most dangerous cities, without even a chance to ask for protection here. The parents in those border cities sending their kids across alone, heartbroken but knowing they’ll be better protected. The peculiar glee with which many U.S. border and immigration personnel carry out these policies.

The growing number of countries becoming populist, nationalist dictatorships—first through fair elections, later through sham elections. The lack of formulas for unseating those regimes. The growing ranks of jailed, tortured, and exiled journalists, activists, and civic leaders. The probability that the United States could become one of those regimes. What that will mean for those of us who continue to speak out.

That’s a big, built-up mass of sadness and loss, constantly hovering in our peripheral vision.

Placing that mass into our direct focus, sitting with it and trying to draw some wisdom from it, can’t happen on a typical, hectic, routine day. We have too many responsibilities and people to attend. We have to stay paid. We certainly don’t sit with it on social media or wherever else our ragged “national conversation” takes place—those venues substitute outrage for sadness, making it worse as we endlessly scroll.

Here at the end of the year, though, most of us have time out of the routine. Hopefully that means at least a few hours not looking at our phones, and reflecting, alone and with those closest to us. If we get a chance to do that, then we should try, for a moment, not pushing the sadness away when it comes.

Go ahead and be with it for a long moment. The end of the year is a good time to do it. Don’t wallow, but do feel it deeply, in all its dimensions. Give in to it: let the sad pass through. It will probably be wrenching. It may hurt.

But then, act. Don’t turn the sadness into anger—at least, not into undirected rage. Sadness and anger are only worthwhile if, like alchemists, we can forge them into something creative.

Examples abound of people doing that. I know hundreds of them from my work in Latin America. But there are hundreds—even thousands—within a 10-mile radius of where you’re reading this.

Those doing registration and get-out-the-vote drives? Fighting for housing, addiction treatment, or asylum? Feeding the hungry, assembling COVID test kits, taking in strangers? They see so much of the sadness on a daily basis that they probably have PTSD. But they keep going.

Right now there are people teaching and mentoring kids, caring for the ill, caring for others’ kids, developing life-saving medical treatments. There are people defending migrants, representing victims of police brutality, advocating for those experiencing homelessness.

People trying to undo deliberate government policies that cause human suffering, at home and abroad. People pushing audacious ideas, from criminal justice reform to housing-first to alternative energy to immigration reform to disarmament to stopping human rights abuse. People trying to end armed conflicts and solve devastating political impasses.

Artists willing new works into existence, changing how we feel or view the world, comforting us, discomforting us, provoking us. People urging political leaders to act, but not content to wait around for them.

As with sources of sadness, the sources of hope are innumerable. They mean so much more than the latest outrages on our phones’ screens.

So give in, for a moment, to the sadness that comes with being alive right now. But then reflect on how to reduce it, how to alchemize it into hope.

Reflect on our own behaviors that might be contributing to the sadness—we all have some. Reflect on how we can better use our talents, our energies, and our connections with people to bring relief, to create… happiness. To create human happiness out of thin air, where nothing existed before but indifference and apathy.

After the sadness, go look for the embers of hope: in our communities, in our families, in our networks, and in ourselves. Then let’s fan them into real flames.

Let’s have a happy new year.

An off-topic rant

Time for some off-topic venting. Bear with me, it’s just 353 words. But I need to rant.

It’s been 21 months since everything first closed down, and it’s still hard to get a COVID test here in the US. Wherever there’s a test site in DC, there’s dozens of people in line. Even hundreds. Some of them coughing. Pharmacies are mostly sold out of tests.

It’s December 2021.

And it seems worse elsewhere.

Think about how incredible that is. What a failure of leadership. We thought this would get better without Trump, but it didn’t. It just didn’t.

Perhaps the “free market will sort this out” myth took hold. Well, the free market didn’t foresee this.

Our family got boosters, but the online appointment system (with for-profit pharmacies, no government involved) made us wait nearly 3 weeks. For our kid, we had to drive for miles—and then the pharmacy screwed up the vax record and my wife spent an hour on hold trying to fix it.

We’re OK: we can deal with that kind of hassle. We have desk-at-home jobs and an older child.

But we’re the minority. What about those in worse shape than us? Elderly? Single parents? Low income? Low information? They’re struggling enough as it is.

What to us is added friction, to them means missing out on boosters and tests.

Getting tested and vaccinated should be effortless by now, especially for people trying to hold down jobs, raise kids, and stay afloat. People who don’t get the latest updates from NPR, NYT, or CDC.

That it isn’t effortless—that there are still so many shortages, so many friction points, and so little specific, current information from credible government sources, leaving so many instead just to share experts’ tweets? That’s a failure, and it will kill people this winter.

OK, end of rant.

I don’t initiate conversations about this in real life, because every time it comes up, I get so mad that whoever I’m talking with starts looking concerned. Even as I write this, I should probably go breathe into a paper bag.

I like cicadas actually

Here in the northeastern United States there’s a big insect called a cicada, which makes very loud noise and moves very slowly. The most common ones here spend 17 years underground, then emerge each spring. Every year, their numbers are different, but the largest “brood” by far, last seen in 2004, is out now.

I live in central Washington, which is heavily paved and has few cicadas. My wife and I went for a walk yesterday in a park about 9 miles south of here, along the Potomac River, and there were clouds of them. They’re everywhere. They’re so dumb and clunky that they just fly into you:

And they’re loud. Their collective sound is like a sine wave, at the volume of a car alarm going off down the block:

I’m sure if the area around my house sounded like this, I’d be sick of them. But since I only hear them when I get to take a walk in the woods—and it makes the experience eerie and bizarre—I’m a big fan of the cicadas.

Oh also, we saw some bald eagles. This is the best I could do with my phone camera:

Photo

The view from my seat while hosting yesterday’s virtual event on coca and eradication in Colombia.

Friday afternoon

My wife took this photo of me working at home today. Why would I ever want to go back to the office? To have more mousepad space, I guess.

The microphone is for podcasting—got it 9 years ago for $100. I’m not sure what the cat is for—got it 17 1/2 years ago for free.

“Important Numbers”: a New Section at the Revived colombiapeace.org Site

When trying to understand peace accord implementation, security threats, and human rights in Colombia, we have to rely heavily on numbers to explain what’s happening. Whether you’re explaining reintegration of ex-combatants, pointing to coca cultivation trends, or advocating for more prosecutions of those masterminding social leaders’ murders, you often need numerical data. And the most current numbers can be hard to find.

In response to that need, a new section of our “colombiapeace.org” site—which I’ve been updating and improving over the past two weeks—just went live: a compendium of current numbers and statistics about peace, security, and human rights in Colombia. Each number has a link to the source document where we found it; the links are color-coded to indicate whether the source is an official document.

Right now, the page includes 85 individual bits of data, covering the following topics:

  • Attacks on Social Leaders
  • Child Combatants
  • Coca and Eradication
  • Crop Substitution
  • Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration
  • Displacement
  • Dissident Groups
  • ELN
  • FARC Political Future
  • Protection of Ex-Combatants
  • Public Security
  • Stabilization and Rural Governance
  • Transitional Justice

This page will never be “done.” It’ll need constant updating. It will also receive additions: there are some basic bits of public information still missing, and some topics will get added to the list above. But at this point, the “numbers” page is good enough to share.

Here, for instance, is what the page’s “Attacks on Social Leaders” section looks like right now. Visit the page to view all topics.

  • As of December 30, 2019, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had verified 303 murders of human rights defenders and social leaders between the signing of the FARC peace accord and the end of 2019.
  • The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) counts a higher number: 555 social leaders killed between January 1, 2016 and October 31, 2019. That is 133 cases in 2016, 126 cases in 2017, 178 cases in 2018, and 118 cases in 2019.
  • The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights counted up to 120 killings of human rights defenders and social leaders in 2019: as of January 14, 2020, 107 cases were verified and 13 more were undergoing verification.
  • Of these 107, 98% happened “in municipalities with illicit economies where criminal groups or armed groups operate.” 86% occurred “in villages with a poverty rate above the national average.”
  • In 2018, the UN High Commissioner’s office counted 115 killings.
  • More than half of 2019 social-leader killings occurred in 4 departments: Antioquia, Arauca, Cauca, and Caquetá, though UN High Commissioner counted murders in 25 of Colombia’s 32 departments.
  • “The single most targeted group,” the UN High Commissioner reports, “was human rights defenders advocating on behalf of community-based and specific ethnic groups such as indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians. The killings of female human rights defenders increased by almost 50% in 2019 compared to 2018.”
  • The UN High Commissioner’s office counted at least 10 killings during the first 13 days of January.
  • The NGO INDEPAZ counts 51 social leaders murdered between January 1 and February 18, 2020.
  • INDEPAZ counted 23 murders of social leaders in the month of December 2019.
  • On December 17, 2019, the Colombian Presidency’s human rights advisor, Francisco Barbosa (who is now Colombia’s Prosecutor-General) said that 84 social leaders were murdered in 2019, which he said was a 25% reduction from 2018.
  • As of January 2020, 59 participants in coca crop substitution programs had been killed, according to the National Coordination of Coca, Poppy, and Marijuana Cultivators (COCCAM).
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.