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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U.S. Policy

Migration, country by country, at the U.S.-Mexico border

(Cross-posted from wola.org)

The COVID pandemic, and related U.S. efforts to curtail access to asylum, have caused patterns of migration at the U.S.-Mexico border to fluctuate in often sharp and unpredictable ways. The two graphics below indicate the top countries of citizenship of migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal years 2020-2022 and in the past three full months (August-October).

Scroll below the graphics for a brief narrative about migration from each country.

1. Mexico: Mexico is nearly always the number-one country of origin for migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. Until 2012, over 85 percent of migrants whom Border Patrol apprehended were citizens of Mexico. By 2019, that had fallen to 20 percent; Mexican migrants made up 33 percent in fiscal year 2022 (October 2021-September 2022), and 28 percent in October 2022. In 2022, U.S. authorities used the Title 42 pandemic authority—struck down by a federal judge on November 15—to expel Mexican migrants 86 percent of the time. In October 2022, 85 percent of Mexican migrants encountered were single adults, much higher than the proportion for citizens of all countries (69 percent).

  • 2021-2022 change: +23%
  • Expelled under Title 42 in 2022: 86%
  • Single adults 2022: 91%
  • Family unit members 2022: 5%
  • Unaccompanied children 2022: 3%
  • Encountered at ports of entry 2022: 9%
  • Sectors most frequently encountered 2022: Tucson, Arizona; San Diego, California; El Paso, Texas/New Mexico

2. Cuba: Migration to the border from Cuba, already pushed by state repression and a historic economic crisis, jumped after Nicaragua’s regime, in November 2021, eliminated visa requirements for visiting Cubans, facilitating their travel to the North American mainland. More than 220,000 Cuban citizens—2 percent of Cuba’s population—were encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2022.

Mexico does not allow U.S. authorities to expel Cubans across the land border under Title 42, and Cuba has not permitted U.S. expulsion flights; 98 percent of Cubans apprehended at the border in 2022 were processed in the United States under normal immigration law. Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, most will be able to apply for permanent resident status after a year in the United States. Cuba agreed in November 2022 to start accepting U.S. deportation flights.

  • 2021-2022 change: +471%
  • Expelled under Title 42 in 2022: 2%
  • Single adults 2022: 76%
  • Family unit members 2022: 23%
  • Unaccompanied children 2022: 0%
  • Encountered at ports of entry 2022: 0%
  • Sectors most frequently encountered 2022: Del Rio, Texas; Yuma, Arizona/California; Rio Grande Valley, Texas

3. Venezuela: Migrants from Venezuela began arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in significant numbers for the first time in 2021. Most were flying into Mexico, which did not require visas of visiting Venezuelan citizens at the time. In January 2022, at strong U.S. suggestion, Mexico imposed a visa requirement on Venezuelans. Migration from Venezuela dropped, then steadily recovered as tens of thousands of migrants per month braved Panama’s dangerous Darién Gap jungles, traveling overland all the way to the U.S. border.

During fiscal year 2022, 1 percent of Venezuelan migrants were expelled under Title 42, nearly all of them people who had some migratory status in Mexico. On October 12, 2022, the U.S. and Mexican governments announced Mexico’s agreement to take back Venezuelan citizens expelled across the land border under Title 42; the impact is seen in the one-third reduction in Venezuelan migration from September to October.

  • 2021-2022 change: +286%
  • Expelled under Title 42 in 2022: 1%
  • Single adults 2022: 64%
  • Family unit members 2022: 35%
  • Unaccompanied children 2022: 1%
  • Encountered at ports of entry 2022: 0%
  • Sectors most frequently encountered 2022: Del Rio, Texas; Yuma, Arizona/California; El Paso, Texas/New Mexico

4. Nicaragua: Citizens of Nicaragua continue to flee the Ortega regime’s repression, and economic turmoil, in great numbers. The U.S. government has consistently run two removal flights to Nicaragua per month; 97 percent of Nicaraguan migrants encountered at the border were processed in the United States under normal immigration law.

  • 2021-2022 change: +227%
  • Expelled under Title 42 in 2022: 3%
  • Single adults 2022: 80%
  • Family unit members 2022: 18%
  • Unaccompanied children 2022: 2%
  • Encountered at ports of entry 2022: 0%
  • Sectors most frequently encountered 2022: Rio Grande Valley, Texas; Del Rio, Texas; El Paso, Texas/New Mexico

5. Colombia: Citizens of Colombia fleeing violence and economic turmoil are usually able to fly to Mexico, which does not require visas of visiting Colombians, although there has been a noteworthy uptick in Colombians not being admitted to Mexico upon arriving at airports, or being subject to extortion by Mexican officials. (Mexico, Chile, Colombia, and Peru have a visa-free travel arrangement under the “Pacific Alliance” structure.) The U.S. government has been running about 20 monthly expulsion or removal flights to Colombia since April. Migration from Colombia increased about twenty-fold from 2021 to 2022.

  • 2021-2022 change: +1,918%
  • Expelled under Title 42 in 2022: 9%
  • Single adults 2022: 52%
  • Family unit members 2022: 48%
  • Unaccompanied children 2022: 1%
  • Encountered at ports of entry 2022: 1%
  • Sectors most frequently encountered 2022: Yuma, Arizona/California; Del Rio, Texas; San Diego, California

6. Guatemala: Mexico accepts Title 42 expulsions of Guatemalan citizens across the land border, and U.S. authorities expelled 67 percent of Guatemalans encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2022. As Title 42 made requesting asylum virtually impossible for citizens of Guatemala, migration from Guatemala declined 18 percent from fiscal year 2021 to fiscal year 2022. 26 percent of Guatemalan migrants encountered in 2022 were unaccompanied children; all were processed under normal immigration law within the United States, as the Biden administration is not applying Title 42 to children arriving without parents.

  • 2021-2022 change: -18%
  • Expelled under Title 42 in 2022: 67%
  • Single adults 2022: 58%
  • Family unit members 2022: 16%
  • Unaccompanied children 2022: 26%
  • Encountered at ports of entry 2022: 1%
  • Sectors most frequently encountered 2022: Rio Grande Valley, Texas; El Paso, Texas/New Mexico; Tucson, Arizona

7. Honduras: Mexico accepts Title 42 expulsions of Honduran citizens across the land border, and U.S. authorities expelled 63 percent of Hondurans encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2022. As Title 42 made requesting asylum virtually impossible for citizens of Honduras, migration from Honduras declined 33 percent from fiscal year 2021 to fiscal year 2022. 18 percent of Honduran migrants encountered in 2022 were unaccompanied children. Just over half of Honduran migrants were encountered in Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector, in south Texas, in 2022.

  • 2021-2022 change: -33%
  • Expelled under Title 42 in 2022: 63%
  • Single adults 2022: 47%
  • Family unit members 2022: 35%
  • Unaccompanied children 2022: 18%
  • Encountered at ports of entry 2022: 6%
  • Sectors most frequently encountered 2022: Rio Grande Valley, Texas; Del Rio, Texas; El Paso, Texas/New Mexico
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Former U.S. ambassadors on agencies that “go rogue”

Two former U.S. ambassadors and career diplomats wrote a super-interesting piece at Univision about how poorly Justice Department and Homeland Security Department operators—notably, DEA agents—fit within U.S. embassies overseas. They have a pronounced tendency to go rogue and defy ambassadors and presidents.

there are agencies that are historically good at recognizing and adhering to Chief of Mission authority. The State Department, USAID, Agriculture, Commerce, and CIA, generally color between the lines. Their career officers are bureaucratically and culturally raised within a foreign affairs milieu.

Then there are the other guys.

… Often, ambassadors witness them freelance out of a surfeit of exuberance, like the mission-driven Department of Defense. DoD types, however, have strict discipline ingrained in their culture, and when counseled as to the realities of a foreign, diplomatic “battlespace” compared to being in garrison or at war, most adapt well.

But there are also those who scoff at the notion of Chief of Mission authority and pursue their own agendas because, well, they have their own agendas which don’t necessarily include the President’s foreign policy. That would include the DEA, the Department of Justice, and certain elements of the multi-headed hydra that is the Department of Homeland Security.

Are the non-compliers disloyal; are they actively trying to sabotage the President and by extension, the Ambassador? We suggest not. But their actions are no less disruptive for being carried out by loyal and hard-working public servants.

The root of the problem lies in diametrically opposed bureaucratic cultures and operating environments. Most DEA agents have been US street cops. Most DoJ officials sent overseas have served as Assistant U.S. Attorneys, or are career DoJ staff – folks for whom judicial independence, the sanctity of an investigation, and the sacrosanct pursuit of a conviction in a US court trump all other considerations. This makes for an extremely bad fit when joining a diplomatic organization, where relationships and policy goals are measured in shades of frustrating gray, and where the ambassador is, by presidential order, the boss.

It will often appear that DEA, CBP, or similar oversight-challenged agencies are acting in an undisciplined or corrupt way overseas, or carry out activities that even seem to contradict U.S. policy. What was the deal, for instance, with the 2018 DEA sting operation that tried to ensnare demobilized FARC leaders when Colombia’s peace accord was in its early implementation phases? And let’s not forget DEA’s naked defiance of the U.S. ambassador and congressional oversight during en elite team’s 2012 operations that led to the killing of civilians in Honduras.

The analysis from the ex-ambassadors (John Feeley, Panama; James Nealon, Honduras) confirms that this is indeed happening, and is a problem.

Reuters: In Brazil, Biden’s defense chief to call on region’s militaries to respect democracy

From Reuters today:

U.S. President Joe Biden’s defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, is expected to call on militaries to respect democracy at an Americas-wide defense gathering this week in Brazil, a senior U.S. defense official said.

Those expected remarks – while not specifically directed at Brazil – are likely to turn heads there ahead of its Oct. 2 election, where Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro formally launched his re-election bid on Sunday by saying “the Army is on our side.”

This is the right, and really the only possible, move. Otherwise, a Defense Ministerial meeting in Brazil just 68 days before the presidential election risks appearing like a commercial for Bolsonaro.

Deeply unfortunate

He may do good elsewhere, but future histories of Joe Biden’s human rights record will begin with this photo.

WOLA Podcast: “What happens with the Petro government could become a model for engaging with the region”

My WOLA colleague Gimena Sánchez was in Colombia for the June 19 election that brought a left candidate to power there for the first time in nearly anyone’s lifetime. We recorded a podcast about it on Friday, and here it is. Here’s the blurb from WOLA’s podcast site.

Colombia’s June 19 presidential election had a historic result: the first left-of-center government in the country’s modern history. Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla who demobilized over 30 years ago, will be sworn in to the presidency on August 7. His running mate, Afro-Colombian social movement leader and environmental defender Francia Márquez, will be Colombia’s next vice president.

WOLA’s director for the Andes, Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, was in Colombia on election day, and has a lot to share about what she saw and heard. She and host Adam Isacson talk about what made Petro’s victory possible—including high levels of popular discontent. They discuss the political transition so far, the immediate challenges of governability and tax revenue, implications for implementing Colombia’s 2016 peace accord, and hope for greater participation of women, Afro-descendant, Indigenous, and LGBTI Colombians.

The discussion covers areas of potential disagreement with a U.S. government that has long made Colombia its largest aid recipient, including drug policy, trade, and Venezuela policy. Sánchez and Isacson also discuss new areas of potential U.S.-Colombian cooperation, including judicial strengthening and implementation of peace accord commitments that could stabilize long-ungoverned territories.

Links to recent WOLA analysis of Colombia’s elections:

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.

Supply and demand

Here’s what it looks like when you chart out Table 8.3 in the just-released 2022 UNODC World Drug Report. This is the average price of a gram of cocaine sold on U.S. streets over the 31 years between 1990 and 2020, in 2020 inflation-adjusted dollars, adjusted for purity.

Two things stand out:

  • If the purpose of “supply side” drug policy is to make cocaine scarcer, it has largely failed to do so. The only moment when cocaine prices were a bit higher than usual—indicating some relative scarcity—was the late 2000s and early-to-mid 2010s. That was a time when aerial fumigation was declining in Colombia, and manual eradication and territorial governance efforts were increasing.
  • The White House’s last update on Andean cocaine showed the region’s total potential production of the drug increasing from 1,521 tons in 2016 to 2,132 tons in 2020. That’s a 40% potential supply increase. But this chart shows almost no decrease in price over those four years, just $6, or 3 percent. That probably tells us that the Andes’ big increase in coca and cocaine production is going to other countries’ drug markets, not to the United States, where there’s some balance between supply and demand.

Dysfunction

I just updated this slide for a talk I’m giving tomorrow, and… wow. The U.S. government has confirmed ambassadors serving in South American countries containing less than a quarter of South America’s population. (105 million out of 431 million people, according to WolframAlpha.)

There’s something to keep in mind the next time you hear a U.S. official, or U.S. senator whose job it is to confirm nominees, rending their garments about China’s growing influence in the hemisphere.

Don’t let the “caravan” in southern Mexico distract you

Media are reporting on a large number of migrants leaving Tapachula, the city near Mexico’s border with Guatemala where tens of thousands are stranded, because Mexico requires them to remain in the state where they first apply for asylum. (See an early June report on Tapachula from some of my colleagues at WOLA.)

Hungry and miserable while waiting for Mexico’s backlogged asylum system to move, many are packing up and leaving. This time, a large number are Venezuelan.

Reuters estimated on June 6 that “at least 6,000” people left Tapachula en masse. Fox News immediately took notice and started piping footage into their viewers’ eyeballs.

Three points about this:

  1. No “migrant caravan” has succeeded in reaching the U.S.-Mexico border since late 2018. Mexican forces routinely break them up. A large one last fall dwindled, with just a few hundred walking all the way to Mexico City (very, very far from the U.S. border), as Mexican forces prohibited caravan participants from boarding vehicles. Caravans have become more of a negotiating tactic for migrants to press for permission to live in parts of Mexico where jobs are while awaiting asylum outcomes. (Tapachula is in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state.)
  2. Even if the caravan did manage to arrive at the U.S. border, we’d hardly notice right now. In late May, Axios reported that “the administration’s internal data now counts about 8,000 people attempting to cross the southwest border each day.” So “at least 6,000” people is less than a day’s worth of migration at the border right now.
  3. Caravans are what migrants attempt when they can’t afford to pay thousands of dollars each to a smuggler to get them across Mexico. They attempt to band together as a form of “safety in numbers.” But as noted, caravans really don’t succeed anymore. Instead, most of those 8,000 people a day arriving at the U.S. border right now are paying smuggling networks. And most of them cross Mexico in a week or two, usually less, in vehicles. U.S. media outlets’ and anti-migrant politicians’ obsession over “caravans” benefits those smuggling networks by making them migrants’ only option.

And it totally lets off the hook the corrupt Mexican migration and security officials who enrich themselves by looking the other way, waving smugglers’ vehicles through their many road checkpoints. The need to pay those officials (and, in northern Mexico, organized crime) is why smugglers’ fees are so high in the first place. But corruption gets like one hundredth the attention that “caravan” footage gets. Stop being distracted by the caravans.

Military-to-Military Relations with Mexico on Twitter

Even as Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador boycotts the Summit of the Americas, knocking the bilateral diplomatic relationship further sideways, the U.S.-Mexico military-to-military relationship seems to be all hugs and smiles—judging.

That’s the impression you get, at least, looking at these tweets posted over the past 3 weeks.

Spanish version of today’s “Responsible Statecraft” analysis of Colombia

I’m grateful to the Quincy Institute’s online magazine, Responsible Statecraft, for publishing my analysis of the current moment in Colombia’s elections. The first round was five days ago, and the second, between two very non-traditional candidates, is coming on June 19. It’s going to be a wild ride.

Read the English version there.

Here (with help from DeepL, and me giving that a non-native-speaker edit) is el contenido en español.

“Cómo un populista esquivó la vieja maquinaria de izquierda-derecha de Colombia”

Por Adam Isacson

Las elecciones presidenciales de Colombia se dirigen a una segunda vuelta el 19 de junio. Es imposible predecir quién gobernará de 2022 a 2026, pero es seguro que habrá un cambio sorprendente. Por primera vez en la historia moderna del tercer país más grande de América Latina, el candidato elegido por la arraigada élite política colombiana no es uno de los finalistas.

Los colombianos están agotados por la pandemia, el aumento de la pobreza y la desigualdad, el incremento de la delincuencia y la proliferación de grupos armados, y un gobierno en funciones que no ha sabido transmitir empatía. En la primera vuelta del 29 de mayo, el 40,3% apoyó a Gustavo Petro, el primer candidato viable de centro-izquierda en al menos 80 años, en un país donde los candidatos reformistas han sido asesinados con frecuencia.

Aunque estaba llenando plazas y recibiendo mucha cobertura de los medios de comunicación, las encuestas habían mostrado correctamente que era improbable que Petro, ex guerrillero y ex alcalde de Bogotá, alcanzara el umbral del 50 por ciento necesario para una victoria en la primera ronda. Las encuestas apuntaban a que Petro se enfrentaría en la segunda vuelta, y probablemente vencería, a Federico Gutiérrez, el candidato respaldado por el partido del actual presidente de Colombia, Iván Duque, un conservador impopular.

Eso no fue lo que ocurrió: Gutiérrez quedó en tercer lugar, y Petro se enfrentará a otro candidato “outsider” a favor del cambio. Rodolfo Hernández, un irascible ex alcalde de la sexta ciudad más grande de Colombia, de 77 años, obtuvo el 28,2%. Hernández, un acaudalado empresario que se presenta sin partido político y que aparece más a menudo en Tik-Tok y otras plataformas que en persona, atrajo a los colombianos opuestos a la política de Petro pero descontentos con el statu quo. Se ha disparado en las últimas encuestas, impulsado por un estilo populista, campechano y propenso a las meteduras de pata, y por un mensaje anticorrupción de gran calado (aunque se están investigando algunas irregularidades en la contratación durante su gestión como alcalde).

La ventaja de Petro y el auge de Hernández supusieron un duro golpe para la maquinaria política tradicional de Colombia, incluida la del otrora dominante ex presidente Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), un conservador cuyo candidato elegido (incluido él mismo) había llegado a la ronda final de todas las elecciones desde 2002, perdiendo sólo una vez. Quien gane el 19 de junio no estará en deuda con los partidos mayoritarios de Colombia, aunque éstos sigan teniendo muchos escaños en el Congreso. Y muy notablemente, independientemente del resultado, la próxima vicepresidenta de Colombia será una mujer negra: la líder del movimiento social Francia Márquez (Petro) o la académica Marelén Castillo (Hernández).

La matemática ahora mismo favorece a Rodolfo Hernández. Su porcentaje de votos válidos el 29 de mayo, más los de Gutiérrez, arroja un voto de “cualquiera menos Petro” de hasta el 54 por ciento. Una primera encuesta, publicada el 1 de junio, mostraba a Petro y a Hernández dentro del margen de error, con Hernández ligeramente por delante, y un gran número de indecisos (14 por ciento). Un segundo sondeo, sin indecisos, daba a Hernández un margen de 52-45.

Aunque se trata de una votación entre dos candidatos del “cambio” con fuertes tendencias populistas, el 19 de junio no será una contienda entre la izquierda y la derecha: ver las elecciones de Colombia de esa manera es malinterpretarlas. Hernández, en un claro esfuerzo por despojarse de la etiqueta de “derecha”, expuso en un tuit el 30 de mayo un hilo de propuestas políticas tan centristas, incluso de izquierda en algunos temas, que Petro lo acusó de “regoger mis propuestas”.

  • Ambos prometen implementar el acuerdo de paz de 2016 con las FARC, al que Uribe y sus partidarios se opusieron. El programa de Petro discute en mayor detalle cómo lo implementaría, incluyendo las prioridades de género y étnicas.
  • Ambos prometen proseguir negociaciones con el grupo guerrillero que queda en Colombia, el Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), de más de 50 años de antigüedad.
  • Ambos restablecerían las relaciones con el régimen de Nicolás Maduro en Venezuela, un probable golpe al gobierno alternativo opositor de Juan Guaidó, a quien tanto Bogotá como Washington reconocen actualmente como presidente de Venezuela.
  • Ambos son muy críticos con la política de drogas tal y como se ha practicado en el último medio siglo. Hernández le dijo al embajador estadounidense que estaba a favor de la legalización de las drogas, cuando se reunieron en enero. Ambos buscarían legalizar el cannabis recreativo, y no se reanudará la dura política de erradicación de la coca mediante la fumigación de herbicidas desde aviones, apoyada por Estados Unidos y suspendida por razones sanitarias desde 2015.
  • Ambos candidatos se oponen al fracking, apoyan el derecho al aborto (recientemente legalizado por una decisión de la Corte Constitucional), y apoyan los derechos del colectivo LGBTQ, el matrimonio gay, y la adopción por parte de parejas homosexuales.
  • Ambos dicen que apoyan el derecho a la protesta social, incluido el paro nacional que paralizó Colombia durante semanas en abril y mayo de 2021. Y ambos critican duramente a Uribe, el ex presidente de línea dura al que los colombianos asocian con importantes logros en materia de seguridad, pero también con violaciones de los derechos humanos y faltas de ética.

La lente izquierda-derecha, entonces, es de poca utilidad para entender lo que está sucediendo. Las posiciones de Gustavo Petro son tradicionalmente de izquierda, pero no está claro si Petro gobernaría como un socialdemócrata o como un “hombre fuerte” populista. Hernández es más amigable con el sector de las grandes empresas, pero las posiciones enumeradas muestran más flexibilidad ideológica que la que hemos visto en populistas de derecha como Jair Bolsonaro o Donald Trump. En lugar de llamarlo el “Trump colombiano“, tiene más sentido comparar a Hernández con populistas latinoamericanos semiautocráticos que no encajan fácilmente en los encasillamientos de izquierda-derecha, como el mexicano Andrés Manuel López Obrador o el salvadoreño Nayib Bukele.

Gane quien gane, el próximo presidente de Colombia será un líder que tratará de apelar directamente al pueblo, que se peleará a menudo con los medios de comunicación, y que probablemente no defenderá las normas establecidas y las frágiles instituciones. El próximo líder se resistirá a los controles y equilibrios democráticos; ambos han planteado la idea de utilizar poderes de emergencia. Se enfrentará a los enemigos: para Petro, son las élites tradicionales de Colombia; para Hernández, son los que considera corruptos, o, de forma alarmante, la población inmigrante venezolana, que ha sido objeto de algunos comentarios xenófobos.

Todos estos son elementos de lo que podríamos llamar el “libreto populista”, un elemento emblemático de las democracias en declive del siglo XXI en todo el mundo. El próximo presidente de Colombia podría ser popular y transformador, pero el país podría ser aún menos democrático que es.

Esto supone un reto para Estados Unidos. Tanto las administraciones demócratas como las republicanas han invertido 25 años, y más de 13.000 millones de dólares, en construir una “relación especial” con Colombia, especialmente con las fuerzas de seguridad colombianas. Al presidente Joe Biden le gusta llamar a Colombia “la piedra angular de la política estadounidense en América Latina y el Caribe”. A Washington le preocupa perder influencia en el hemisferio occidental en favor de China y otras grandes potencias rivales.

Washington está a punto de descubrir que sólo ha construido una “relación especial” con un pequeño segmento de Colombia -las élites urbanas, las fuerzas armadas, las asociaciones empresariales-, lo que le deja sin preparación para trabajar con un gobierno cuya base está en otra parte, en la sociedad civil organizada y entre las clases medias descontentas, los colombianos más pobres, y los afrodescendientes e indígenas. Independientemente de quién gane, es probable que la relación entre Estados Unidos y Colombia siga siendo cordial en general, pero el camino que queda por recorrer será muy accidentado.

Los puntos de vista de ambos candidatos sobre las relaciones con Venezuela y sobre la política antidroga -especialmente la erradicación de cultivos forzados y la extradición- podrían ponerlos en vías de colisión con la administración Biden y con los republicanos del Congreso. La visión crítica de Petro sobre el libre comercio y la inversión extranjera, y su probable deseo de relajar la asociación militar entre Estados Unidos y Colombia, provocaría hostilidad en algunos sectores de Washington. El resultado podría ser palabras desagradables, reducción de la presencia diplomática, reducción de la asistencia y, quizás, un abrazo aún más estrecho a las élites empresariales y políticas de Colombia ya fuera del poder.

La relación de Washington con Colombia podría llegar a parecerse a la que tiene ahora con otros gobiernos populistas o de tendencia autoritaria en la región (aparte de los de izquierda dura -Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela- con los que las relaciones son totalmente hostiles). Si es así, los funcionarios estadounidenses evitarán airear la mayoría de los desacuerdos en público. Preferirán enfatizar las áreas de cooperación, como hacen hoy en día en materia de migración con México y Centroamérica, o en los lazos militares con Brasil.

Los funcionarios estadounidenses tratarán de relacionarse con algunas instituciones aunque se mantengan al margen de los líderes políticos. En Brasil, El Salvador y Guatemala, por ejemplo, el Comando Sur de EE.UU. continúa con un programa intenso de compromisos militares incluso cuando las relaciones con los presidentes Bolsonaro, Bukele y Giammattei son distantes. Es fácil imaginar un escenario en el que la relación entre militares, en vez de entre civiles, se convierta en la interacción más estrecha del gobierno estadounidense con Colombia.

El próximo reto inmediato para la política estadounidense -y para la diplomacia internacional en general- se producirá el 19 de junio. Si, como parece probable, los candidatos están a pocos puntos porcentuales de distancia entre sí, la posibilidad es alta de que uno de ellos clame “fraude” y rechace el resultado. Si Hernández rechaza el resultado, podría contar con el apoyo de poderosos intereses empresariales y jefes políticos, y quizás incluso de facciones de las fuerzas de seguridad. Si Petro lo rechaza, las protestas callejeras podrían paralizar el país, y quizás volver a encontrarse con una respuesta policial violenta.

Si esto ocurre, el gobierno de Estados Unidos, junto con la OEA y todos los amigos de Colombia, deben trabajar para desactivar la violencia y canalizar las tensiones hacia el diálogo. Eso significa basar todas las declaraciones públicas en hechos establecidos, no en resultados deseados. Significa condenar el comportamiento que viola los derechos humanos, algo que la administración Biden tardó en hacer durante las protestas nacionales de 2021.

Como demuestra la elección de dos candidatos ajenos a la sociedad, los colombianos están con los ánimos crispados en este momento. El objetivo diplomático debe ser amplificar lo que es cierto y buscar desescalar rápidamente. Sólo entonces podremos pasar a preocuparnos por la política y el populismo.

Colombia Elections: ‘The Next President is Either Going to Effectively Kill the Peace Accord or Save it’

Here’s highlights of a discussion Gimena Sánchez and I had with Héctor Silva at WOLA the other day.

The first round of the Presidential elections in Colombia was marked by the real possibility of a triumph of the political left, a stalemate in the peace process, the proliferation of armed groups, and growing violence.

Gustavo Petro, former senator and former mayor of Bogota, obtained 40 percent of the votes and Rodolfo Hernández, an emerging candidate, came in second with 28 percent. One of the big questions ahead of the second round on June 19 is whether Hernández will be able to capitalize on the 55 percent of voters who did not choose Petro.

In this interview, Gimena Sánchez, Director for the Andes at WOLA and Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight at WOLA, discuss the main challenges the new president will face, the risks of electoral violence, and the implications of Colombia’s new political map for the bilateral relationship with the United States.

Read in English at wola.org | Leer en español en wola.org

“They convinced a number of Republican legislators that transparency equalled leftism”

Here’s some synchronicity. Both of these screenshots about Guatemala are from items published April 29.

  • On the left: a must-read article about Guatemala’s exiled anti-corruption investigators, by Jonathan Blitzer in the New Yorker.
  • On the right: a statement published by Republican Senators Marco Rubio (Florida) and Mike Lee (Utah), inadvertently emphasizing the point Blitzer’s source was making.

Southern Command’s “digital magazine” just stigmatized one of Colombia’s youth protest movements

U.S. Southern Command, which manages U.S. military activity in most of the Americas, manages a “digital magazine,” called Diálogo. It has some degree of editorial freedom from Southcom itself—an arrangement unusual outside the U.S. Agency for Global Media. That thin editorial line between the U.S. military and Diálogo’s writers, who are opinionated and amplify strongly conservative political views, probably isn’t evident to most of its readers in Latin America.

Often, Diálogo’s writers get things wrong. Sometimes, they get things dangerously wrong. Here’s a big example in an April 27 piece about the March 30 arrest of Sergei Vagin, an alleged Russian spy, in Bogotá.

To remain undetected, Vagin was steadily flowing small amounts from Russia — between $2,000 and $4,000. In addition, he sent detailed reports to various contacts in Moscow about activities in Colombia, especially during the social protests, Semana reported. He also allegedly tried to bribe a Colombian Army officer to obtain “top secret reports,” reported El Colombiano.

The money is believed to have ended up in the coffers of the criminal group Primera Línea, reported Argentine news site Infobae. This group has links to dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in Spanish) and the ELN, and uses terrorism to cause systematic and collateral damage, Semana said.

Hold. Up.

The “Primera Línea” (“First Line”) is the name used by the groups of mostly poor young people who took to the frontlines in Cali’s “Paro Nacional” protests a year ago. They organized in response to the Cali police force’s initial, brutal attacks on peaceful protesters. Some of them were violent, but most were practicing civil disobedience. They engaged in constructive dialogues with Mayor Jorge Iván Ospina. And many were wounded or killed by police.

The government of Iván Duque has been casting about for evidence that participants in last year’s mass protests were useful idiots inflamed by outside forces like Russian propaganda, rather than an organic response to social exclusion, a deep economic crisis, hunger, and an un-empathetic government.

This is stigmatization based on the thinnest of allegations, and should not have made it past Diálogo’s editors. Worse, it may be self-fulfilling. As the Police continue rounding up Primera Línea members, leaving them and their relatives unprotected, Cali’s young protest participants may be pushed toward armed groups’ embrace—both out of frustration with peaceful tactics and for their own protection.

Here, Southcom’s “digital magazine” lends itself to the “Russian dupes” narrative by citing the Colombian newsmagazine Semana. This is sad and cynical. Until 2020, Semana was one of Latin America’s premier, and bravest, investigative journalism outlets. But its principal owners sold to one of Colombia’s richest men, Gabriel Gilinski, who set about turning the magazine and its Internet properties into a Colombian “Fox News.” Semana today regularly publishes information fed to it by the armed forces.

And in this case, Semana‘s “reporting” launders this smear into a form that Diálogo can cite, which endangers the kids in the Primera Linea even more.

This article, or at least the above-cited segment with the unfounded allegations against the Primera Línea kids, really needs to come down now.

Video: “New Militarism in Latin America?”

(In Spanish) This was a very good 2-panel seminar, recorded on April 21 and hosted by Spain’s Fundación Carolina.

Some of Latin America’s smartest analysts of the current moment in civil-military relations. And also me, talking about the U.S. role over a slideshow, with my New Jersey Spanish accent.

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.

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