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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Politics and Security

The Duque Presidency Limps to the Finish Line

Left, October 23, 2021: Colombia’s president, Iván Duque, proclaims “the end of the Gulf Clan” neo-paramilitary group. (Also known as the “Úsuga Clan,” the “Urabeños,” and the “Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.”)

Right, May 7, 2022: the “Gulf Clan” neo-paramilitary group declares an “armed strike” upon its onetime leader’s extradition to the United States. With threats and over 100 acts of violence, the group stops economic activity in at least part of 11 of Colombia’s 32 departments.


Unsurprisingly, analysts of Colombia’s conflict—like Esteban Salazar of the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation on October 25, 2021—understood what was going on:

Colombia analysis at “Responsible Statecraft”

The Quincy Institute posted an analysis by me about Colombia’s election campaign and its implications for U.S. policy. It went up last Friday on their very good Responsible Statecraft site.

Head-to-head second-round scenario polling shows a razor-thin margin between the two leading candidates, who represent dramatically different visions of government. Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez, a former Medellín mayor, offers continuity with Duque’s conservative politics, which the Biden administration might find reassuring. It would, however, mean continuity with a model of which most Colombians appear to disapprove after four years of worsening violence and economic insecurity.

Gustavo Petro, a former leftist guerrilla and mayor of Bogotá, offers radical change that could consolidate a 2016 peace accord and implement reforms to address one of the world’s worst records of income and land inequality. Petro leads in first-round polling by a comfortable margin. However, he carries a strong whiff of populism and appears open to cooperation with China and Russia, which worries the United States. U.S. diplomats have sounded alarms about Russian interference in Colombia’s campaign, mostly via social media, and they could only be referring to Petro.

Read the whole thing here.

WOLA Podcast: “We believe there are multiple armed conflicts”: Kyle Johnson on security in Colombia

There’s a lot going on, security-wise, in Colombia. We spent an hour on Zoom today with longtime colleague Kyle Johnson in Bogotá, who gave WOLA podcast listeners a grim but thorough tour of the complicated security landscape.

Here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast page.

Colombia had a tumultuous start to 2022, as violence broke out in the northeastern department of Arauca, near the Venezuelan border, killing dozens. The armed groups involved are ELN guerrillas and a faction of ex-FARC guerrillas—but the actors are different elsewhere in the country. Colombia’s persistent armed-group violence has become ever more confused, fragmented, and localized, more than five years after a historic peace accord.

To make sense of the situation, Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson and Program Assistant Matthew Bocanumenth spoke with Kyle Johnson, an analyst and co-founder of the Bogotá-based Conflict Responses Foundation, a research organization that performs extensive fieldwork in conflict-affected territories.

With a nuanced but clear presentation, Johnson answers our many questions and helps make sense of this complex, troubling moment for security and governance throughout rural Colombia.

The way forward, Johnson argues, goes through negotiations and a renewed effort to implement the 2016 peace accord, especially its governance and rural development provisions. It requires abandoning the longtime focus on meeting eradication targets and taking down the leaders of what are now very decentralized armed and criminal groups.

Download the podcast .mp3 file here. Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Are Colombia’s peace accords binding?

In a January 4 interview with Emilio Archila, the Colombian government’s lead official for peace accord implementation, El Espectador’s Sebastián Forero asks, “Why do you always talk about [the Duque administration’s] ‘Peace with Legality,’ policy, but not about the Peace Agreement signed in Havana?”

Archila replies that the text of the 2016 accord, which ended 52 years of fighting with the FARC guerrillas, is not binding unless its commitments are enacted into law.

The Constitutional Court said that the Havana agreements did not generate obligations in themselves, except to the extent that they have been incorporated into legislation, as with all laws issued through Fast Track [the brief 2017 period when Congress could quickly pass laws to cement accord commitments into place]. The Court struck a very good balance made between compliance with the agreements—which must occur in good faith during three presidential administrations—and democracy, because each president will continue to be elected with different mandates. …Those who think that the agreements should be applied as they were signed in Havana are wrong, that is not what the Court said. It said that one should take those texts, turn them into legal and policy instruments, and through them put them into effect, which is what we have done.

Of course, this is technically correct. The peace accord isn’t law, it’s just a 300-page document full of promises that the government made in order to secure a 13,000-person armed group’s commitment to disarm.

The problem with this reasoning should be obvious. What happens if a big chunk of the commitments in the peace accord don’t make it into law? That’s what’s happened with about 41 out of 107 laws or norms that Colombia’s Congress would have had to approve in order to realize all of the peace accord’s commitments.

In the reasoning laid out by Archila, because the Congress did not enact these commitments, they are just dead words on a piece of paper signed in Havana. His administration—led by politicians who opposed the peace accord— is under no obligation to honor those that didn’t make it into legislation.

By another reasoning, though, the failure to pass necessary laws equals non-compliance with the peace accord. Colombia’s Congress didn’t act to pass much outstanding legislation, and especially during the government of Iván Duque (2018-present), the executive branch didn’t push hard for it to do so. Now, that same executive can say, “sorry, we can ignore what was signed five years ago because the laws weren’t passed.”

This creates a terrible set of incentives for any future peace dialogues, whether in Colombia or in other countries with similar legal systems. In order to entice an armed group to disarm, a government can promise its leaders far more than it ever intends to fulfill. Then, after the group disarms and demobilizes, that government can blame the legislature for failing to enact its lofty promises, wash its hands, and walk away.

Why would an armed group negotiate on those terms? If four years of negotiations end up with a piece of paper that the government and legislature can pick and choose from later, why pursue such negotiations?

This is a blow to the credibility of accords resulting from peace talks. If such accords lack credibility, then armed conflicts will be condemned to drag on for longer than they otherwise would. Unnecessarily prolonged conflicts mean years of preventable death, abuse, displacement, and tragedy. The implications of Archila’s position are grave.

Colombia’s prisons still coddle powerful inmates

Kiko Gómez is serving a 55-year sentence in Bogotá’s La Picota maximum-security prison for ordering the 2012 murder of a former mayor in Colombia’s department of La Guajira. Between 2011 and 2013, Gómez was the governor of La Guajira which, because it’s on the Caribbean and borders Venezuela, is hugely strategic for smugglers.

Kiko Gómez was a close ally of Marquitos Figueroa, a major drug trafficker currently imprisoned in Colombia. He and Figueroa repeatedly threatened the lives of journalists and NGO investigators, including some whom I consider friends.

So it’s really frustrating that a video circulating on Twitter shows Kiko Gómez ringing in the New Year with a whisky and beer party in his prison cell, while video-chatting with a noted vallenato musician on his mobile phone.

Colombia’s prisons have been notoriously gentle on wealthy or powerful inmates. Unlike poorer, more vulnerable prisoners, their incarceration conditions are far from austere. This is sometimes a matter of policy, but it’s often the result of endemic corruption in the prison system.

The classic example is El Catedral, the luxurious one-man prison compound overlooking Medellín where Pablo Escobar was briefly held in 1991-92. Even captured guerrilla leaders tend to have large spaces with access to communications and entertainment. I once interviewed some who had phones (in part because they were serving as intermediaries), video games, hundreds of books, pet cats, a pool table, even a maid to clean up.

The U.S. government has spent millions assisting Colombia’s prison system. The U.S. Embassy website describes the State Department International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement “corrections reform program” as “aiding prisons to operate in a safe, secure, humane, and transparent fashion. The primary focus of INL’s assistance includes basic training, international accreditation, and implementation of systems and processes to improve operations.”

Kiko Gómez’s little New Year’s fest shows that this U.S. program has failed even to make a dent in some very key areas, like among high-profile prisoners in one of Bogotá’s most important prisons.

Never mind “left” or “right”: today, it’s “democratic” or “not.”

Most of the takes about Gabriel Boric’s historic election victory yesterday in Chile identify him as a “leftist,” and the opponent he defeated, José Antonio Kast, as a “rightist.” Expect a lot of pixels to be spilled over the next weeks, again, about a “rising leftist tide” in Latin America.

I’m not sure how helpful this analysis is. These days, regardless of their views on abortion or taxing the wealthy, the more interesting label is whether a leader intends to work within established democratic norms or to dismantle them. Some leftists have stayed within the system, and left power when they lost elections (Lula, Cristina Fernández). Others have dismantled the system and undermined elections (Ortega, Chávez/Maduro). (Still others—Zelaya, Rousseff, Lugo—weren’t allowed to finish their terms.)

Right-wingers come in both flavors too. Bolsonaro is weakening Brazil’s institutions, and may be setting up his own January 6-style plan to remain in power past the 2022 elections. But nobody credibly believes that Iván Duque is hatching a plan to keep the right in power regardless of next year’s vote outcome in Colombia. And Kast, along with Chile’s current rightist president, Sebastián Piñera, was quick to congratulate Boric on his victory.

Centrists, too, exist on both axes. El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele is following the populist-authoritarian playbook step by step—but he adheres to no ideological extreme.

This chart is just an approximation based on my own hunches. If you disagree with it, don’t freak out—please go ahead and make your own.

What I don’t have a clear idea of from the current Chile coverage is where Gabriel Boric may fit on the democratic-authoritarian axis. So far, especially since he made the runoff, his rhetoric has been institutional and norms-respecting. There’s a sense that he was the less authoritarian-minded candidate, compared to Kast. Analysts who’ve followed his career find him thoughtful and consensus-seeking, and willing to criticize the regimes in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. That doesn’t apply to everyone in his coalition, though.

The jury is still out on other new leaders, like Honduras’s Xiomara Castro (who hasn’t been sworn in yet) and Peru’s Pedro Castillo (who has had trouble enough forming a viable government). They both go on the left side of this graphic, but it’s hard to know yet whether they go into the top left or bottom left. Neither, though, seems bent on building a cult of personality.

As with them and all of the other leaders in the above graphic, their up-down movement is more interesting to monitor than their right-left movement. It will have the greater implications for regional stability and the survival of democracy.

The up-down movement should also have the greater bearing on how the U.S. government chooses to relate to each leader. It should—but I don’t know if it will. My fear is that Washington’s old “right-left” reflex may kick in. “Right” for many here, is synonymous with pro-business, more likely to buy our weapons and let us invest in their commodity production, and less likely to flirt with China. “Left,” for many, is the opposite of that, denying access to our military and our investors.

If the left-right axis continues to predominate in U.S. policymakers’ minds over the up-down axis, the Biden administration and other D.C opinionmakers may end up embracing rightists who damage democracy and shunning leftists who respect it. May that fear not be realized in 2022.

Lecture video on Latin America’s militaries

Here’s video of a full-length lecture I gave (virtually) two weeks ago, on November 15, at Syracuse University’s Moynihan Center. It’s called “Beyond ‘Soldiers as Police’: The Military’s Growing Role in 21st Century Latin American Democracies.” With no strict time limit, I got to go through:

  • the region’s post-1980s transitions to democracy,
  • the subsequent move to use soldiers as police,
  • how ineffective that turned out to be against organized crime,
  • increased politicization of militaries starting circa 2018-19,
  • how this overlays with authoritarian populist leaders,
  • how the pandemic affects all this,
  • use of militaries for crowd control, and
  • where this might all be headed.

VIew it below, or at Syracuse University’s site.

Big new report—A Long Way to Go: Implementing Colombia’s peace accord after five years

I’ve sort of neglected this website for the past two weeks. It was for a good reason, I think.

I’d been resolving for a while to write a big report evaluating, with as much hard data as possible, how Colombia’s peace accord is going. Like a lot of people who supported the peace accord, I had a strong and urgent feeling that things are going badly: that the government was falling ever further behind on its commitments. But a lot of the current information to support that feeling was either dispersed, or not available to English-speaking audiences.

I’d been working on the report in a piecemeal way for a while, but by early November I realized I had to dive in completely in order to have it ready by the peace accord’s fifth anniversary, which was today (November 24). So my website updates here largely stopped and I went into a sort of research and writing fugue state. I logged 83 hours last week, making the cursor go from left to right as fast as I could.

I’ve emerged from all of that now, and I’m very happy with the result. The report that we dropped late yesterday, A Long Way to Go,” is 28,000 words divided into 19 sections (counting the intro), with twentysomething graphics and like 320 footnotes. It’s a beast—almost certainly the heaviest thing I’ve written since I joined WOLA. But it’s my beast and I’m proud of it because it has a lot of information that you won’t find all in one place, especially not in English, about the urgent state of Colombia’s peace process. I’m glad it’s out there.

Read it here. Here’s a super-brief summary:

November 24 is the five-year anniversary of a landmark peace accord that ended a half a century of fighting in Colombia. While there are aspects worth celebrating, this is a far less happy anniversary than it promised to be.

The 2016 accord ended the most violent facet of a multi-front conflict that killed 260,000 people, left 80,000 more missing, and led to more than 9 million of Colombia’s 50 million people registering with the government as conflict victims. The months after November 2016 saw the disarmament and demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest guerrilla group, though smaller armed groups remain.

For a time after the FARC left the scene, battered rural areas notorious for violence and illicit drug production experienced a moment of calm. A historic window of opportunity opened for Colombia to break its recurrent cycles of violence.

Five years later, the window is closing. Implementing the peace accord has gone more poorly than anticipated. A new report from the Washington Office on Latin America, “A Long Way to Go,” examines the experience of the past five years, presenting a wealth of data about each of the 2016 accord’s six chapters. While there are some positive developments, WOLA finds, Colombia is well behind where it should be.

It was up to Colombia’s government to preserve the peace, by fully implementing the commitments it made in the ambitious 300-page accord. That document promised not just to end the FARC, but to undo the causes underlying more than a century of rural strife in Latin America’s third-largest country: unequal land tenure, crushing poverty, an absent government, and impunity for the powerful.

That hasn’t happened. Parts of Colombia’s government acted, but what they did wasn’t enough. Opponents of the accord came to power in August 2018 and allowed many commitments to languish, keeping investments well below the necessary tempo and encouraging skepticism through messaging that regularly disparages the agreement.

10 notable facts from “A Long Way to Go: Implementing Colombia’s peace accord after five years”
1. As of March 2021, Colombia was 29 percent of the way into the peace accord’s implementation timetable, but had spent just 15 percent of what implementation is expected to cost.
2. One third of the way into the implementation process, the PDETs—the vital plans to bring the government into historically conflictive areas—are only one-seventh funded, and that’s according to the most optimistic estimate.
3. A nationwide mapping of landholdings, expected to be complete by 2023, was only 15 percent done as of March 2021.
4. 2021 is on pace to be Colombia’s worst year for homicides since 2013, and worst year for massacres since 2011.
5. Analysts’ estimates coincide in finding significantly less than 10 percent of demobilized ex-FARC members taking up arms again. “Dissident” groups’ membership is mostly new recruits.
6. Estimates of the number of social leaders murdered in 2020 range from 133 to 310. But the justice system only managed 20 convictions of social leaders’ killers that year, while the Interior Minister argued that “more people die here from cell phone thefts than for being human rights defenders.”
7. Of coca-growing families who signed up for a “two-year” package of crop substitution assistance three or more years ago, just 1 percent had received a complete package of payments by the end of 2020.
8. If the transitional justice tribunal is correct, half of the Colombian military’s claimed combat killings between 2002 and 2008 may have been civilians whom soldiers executed and then falsely claimed were members of armed groups.
9. 20 of the transitional justice tribunal’s 38 magistrates are women. 4 of 11 Truth Commissioners are women.
10. Since accord implementation began in fiscal 2017, U.S. assistance to Colombia has totaled about US$3.1 billion, roughly half of it for the military and police.

Read the report

In historically conflictive territories all around the country, violence is on the rise again. New armed groups are quickly filling the vacuums of authority that the government would not or could not fill on its own. As massacres, displacements, and confrontations increase again, in too many regions—including many Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities—it no longer makes sense to speak of a “post-conflict.”

The “Long Way to Go” report walks through many of the most important commitments Colombia’s government made, evaluating the extent to which each is truly being implemented after five years. The discussion passes through 17 sections.

  • The first looks at the overall budget and use of resources, finding that Colombia is well behind where it should be after five years.
  • The next four cover commitments to Colombia’s countryside, like addressing land tenure, making rural economies viable, and improving security and governance. These commitments, too, are falling alarmingly behind: state presence has not been increasing, land tenure programs are struggling, and violence indicators are worsening.
  • The sixth, seventh, and tenth sections explore commitments to expand political participation and protect social leaders. Despite some important steps forward, the continued pace of attacks and killings and occasional government displays of indifference show how much remains to be done.
  • The eighth and ninth evaluate assistance and security for demobilized ex-combatants. Assistance efforts have been worthy, but security lags amid a low probability of killers being brought to justice
  • The remaining seven sections look at separate sets of commitments: crop substitution, transitional justice, inclusion of ethnic communities, the accords’ gender focus, laws that remain to be passed, verification mechanisms, and the U.S. government’s role. There are positive notes here, like the transitional justice system’s performance, useful external verification, and a more supportive tone from the Biden administration. For the most part, though, these seven sections sound alarms as ground continues to be lost.

Finally, WOLA’s new report explains why, despite the many setbacks documented here, this is absolutely not the time to give up on the peace accord and its promise. Instead, WOLA expects this five-year evaluation to motivate and inform the government that will take power after Colombia’s May 2022 elections, which will need to redouble implementation together with international partners.

Although many findings in “A Long Way to Go” are grim, the report also upholds the bright spots of the past five years. More than nine in ten demobilized guerrillas remain committed to the peace process. The special post-conflict justice system is functioning, earning recent praise from the International Criminal Court. Though beleaguered by threats and attacks, Colombia’s civil society and free press remain vibrant, and the country is headed into 2022 elections with a broad spectrum of candidates.

The window has not closed all the way. All is not lost yet. By taking the temperature of implementation at the five year mark in the most clear-eyed possible manner, WOLA hopes to contribute to Colombians’ effort to resume and rethink their fight to curb the conflict’s historic causes.

The United States’ Influence on Latin America’s New Militarism

At WOLA’s website, find the English version of an article I wrote for Spain’s Fundación Carolina, which published it on November 16, 2021 as Análisis Carolina no. 28: “Estados Unidos y su influencia en el nuevo militarismo latinoamericano” (https://doi.org/10.33960/AC_28.2021).

Summary: U.S. military assistance has long encouraged armed forces to take on internal roles, complicating civil-military relations. This kind of aid declined, however, during the post-cold war period, as the U.S. “wars” on drugs, terror, and organized crime brought reduced, more focused aid and some reluctance to expand military roles. The U.S. pullback from encouraging militarization may be reversing in the 2020s, though, as Washington’s defense strategy shifts to great-power competition. We can expect more U.S. military support for governments that work with the United States and deny access to China and others. This may happen even if recipient governments are authoritarian-trending and use their militaries internally to confront “hybrid threats” within the population. Avoiding this outcome will require the United States to do more to protect and support the region’s increasingly vibrant, but often misunderstood, civil society.

Read the whole thing at WOLA’s website. O lea el español en el sitio de la Fundación Carolina.

WOLA Podcast: A Conversation with WOLA’s New President, Carolina Jiménez Sandoval

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.

Enjoy this one. Here’s the text at WOLA’s podcast landing page.

This week, Adam introduces WOLA’s new president, Carolina Jiménez Sandoval, to listeners.

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.

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

Payback in Cali

An update from Cali, a month after Colombia’s Paro Nacional protests mostly died down, from Elizabeth Dickinson of the International Crisis Group, writing for Razón Pública:

Four weeks after the lifting of a resistance point in one of the neighborhoods, the citizenry lives in an atmosphere of insecurity.

The police left the neighborhood during the first week of May; they have not yet returned. In their place, a group of young people took over control of public order—in theory. At first it was thought that the protagonists of the protest were in charge of security; this was not possible.

“Things got out of hand, it became unbearable,” said a local leader. Homicides have increased in the last two months and the neighbors are afraid to denounce: they say that dozens of people have died in that neighborhood since June, although these figures could not be confirmed.

The lawless situation is the result of the state’s neglect of basic citizen security. The elders of the area—the threatened leaders—consider that the disappearance of the police is a punishment to the community for having supported the strike.

(The boldface is mine.) Dickinson here is arguing that Colombia’s Police have abandoned poor neighborhoods to anarchy, as payback for having dared to protest police brutality. If accurate—and I have no reason to doubt this is what’s happening—this is just incredibly shameful.

What a vivid example of a long-governing elite punishing people for daring to step out of “their place” in Colombian society. Entire communities being denied the most basic of public goods—security—as punishment for having spoken out.

Why does Honduras have a military in 2021?

U.S. Southern Command’s online magazine yesterday ran an interview with the general who heads the Honduran armed forces’ Joint Chiefs of Staff. The article is headlined “Honduran Armed Forces in the Fight Against Crime.”

Gen. Tito Moreno lists the following missions currently occupying his military:

  • fighting against organized crime
  • fighting against narcotrafficking
  • fighting against common crime
  • aerial drug interdiction and “destruction of clandestine landing areas”
  • countering illicit activities in border areas
  • rescuing people in cases of natural disaster

Honduras, a poor and unequal country that Freedom House classifies as “partly free,” maintains a military at no small cost in resources ($280 million in 2017), human rights, and political involvement. But do any of these roles require the maintenance of a military?

  • fighting against organized crime or narcotrafficking: military tactics only necessary if the country has allowed the situation to deteriorate to the extent to which civilian police are “outgunned”
  • fighting against common crime: this is the foundational role of a civilian police force, and is not a military role
  • aerial drug interdiction: could be performed by either an air force or a police air wing
  • countering illicit activities in border areas: elsewhere, frequently performed by police, civilian border patrols or gendarmes
  • natural disaster search and rescue: could be performed by a civilian emergency corps, though militaries are often the only institution with inactive assets, like helicopters and personnel, that can be “surged” in a disaster

Notably missing from Gen. Moreno’s list is “defending against external aggression” or “combating internal insurgents.” That makes sense, since Honduras faces no credible scenarios in either category right now.

“The Honduran armed forces are still undergoing a crisis of identity and cannot decide whether their role is to defend territorial sovereignty and integrity, protect the state from real or fictitious threats, or else continue performing law-enforcement duties,” the most cited of Honduran civil-military analysts, Leticia Salomón, wrote in 2012, three years after a coup in which Honduras’s military played a central role. The above list indicates that nothing has changed since then.

Two of Honduras’s neighbors, Costa Rica and Panama (which both have Freedom House scores as high—or higher—than that of the United States), confront these threats with police forces that are better trained and resourced than Honduras’s. While those forces have units that occasionally use heavier weapons, particularly near coasts and borders, they retain their civilian character and are not significant political actors.

The interview at Southcom’s magazine fails to make the case for maintaining a military in a small country like Honduras, with few traditional defense threats and enormous development and democratic deficits.

Preferring endless war to reform—abroad and at home

Jacqueline Hazelton, author of the new book Ballots not Bullets, argues that elites facing insurgents often prefer to live with the insurgency than to implement reforms, like democratization, having the rule of law apply to them, or income distribution. After all, such reforms are a loser deal for them: they reduce prerogatives and their ability to profit from corruption.

If pressed to carry out reforms (as the United States often does when propping up elites with counterinsurgency aid), the elites will go through the motions. They’ll agree to the reforms, but they’ll fail to implement them. That means stringing everyone along, often for years.

The insistence that good-governance reforms is the path to keeping a partner regime in power—let alone that democratization, modernization, and liberalization are crucial to its long-term stability—sets an unachievable political objective. It also makes interventions last longer, as elites find ways to affirm (and reaffirm and reaffirm) their commitment to reforms they never intend to fully implement. And because the counterinsurgency doctrine expects victory when—and perhaps only when—those reforms are implemented, the intervening power winds up in a particularly bloody version of Waiting for Godot.

This sounds a lot like Colombia, where elites promise reforms—land restitution, peace accord commitments, territorial stabilization, protecting social leaders, innumerable pacts signed with protesting communities—then invariably drag their feet.

If Hazelton is right, then, what are the options? I haven’t read her book, so I can’t tell whether the conclusion is “prop up authoritarian elites for stability, Cold War-style” or “abandon the whole notion of counterinsurgency aid even if it means regime failure.”

For a country like Colombia or Honduras, both of those choices, at least in the short term, would weaken governance even further, and that would increase migrants and illicit drug supplies in the United States. The U.S. political system has proved unable to deal sanely with either migration or drugs—in fact, a rise in either brings political freakouts and pressure for crackdowns at home. So most U.S. leaders would rather not have their domestic agendas derailed by that.

The result is a feedback loop between bad domestic policy and bad counterinsurgency policy. Local elites are willing to tolerate some insurgency in order to keep their prerogatives. And U.S. political leaders are willing to tolerate some counterinsurgent governance half-measures if they keep issues like drugs and migration at “manageable” levels.

Of course, messy counterinsurgency doesn’t do that—not in the long term at least. Perhaps a lot of the solution is about domestic politics: what we choose to freak out about. If we sought to manage migration and drug use—recognizing, with policies ranging from temporary work visas to harm reduction, realities that have been with us for more than half a century—the feedback loop could finally break.

Nueva Trova artists speak out

Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés were mainstays of Cuba’s “Nueva Trova” folk-pop musical movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Their melodies were influenced by the Beatles, but their lyrics and political positions were solidly supportive of the Castro regime. Rodríguez (who had a 1991 greatest hits album compiled by David Byrne), in particular, has staunchly supported the Cuban government’s policies over the years.

It’s notable, then, to see both of them used their Facebook accounts to criticize the government’s crackdown on the young people who went out to protest since July 11. Silvio Rodríguez called for the release of non-violent protesters, and more dialogue and “listening.” Milanés posted: “It is irresponsible and absurd to blame and repress a people who have sacrificed and given their all for decades to sustain a regime that in the end only imprisons them.”

Good for them.

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