WOLA launched a series of e-mail updates to supporters in which they profile staff members. Mine was the first to go—this went out a couple of days ago. Regular visitors to this site are already familiar with the musical recommendations near the bottom:
This week, we would like to introduce you to Adam Isacson, WOLA Director for Defense Oversight
What do you do here at WOLA?
The core of my work has been the same since the ’90s. I keep track of the U.S. relationship with Latin America’s militaries and police forces. Historically, this relationship has been incredibly close, under-scrutinized, and troubled. I do research and advocacy on anything around the region involving U.S. policy toward people who wear uniforms and carry guns.
That’s taken me in a lot of directions, from drug policy to migration response to peace processes. Some of it is closely overseeing U.S. military aid, digging through documents and interviewing people who are in charge of the programs. Some of it is going to some of the places where that aid is spent and, working with partners, talking to communities on the receiving end.
Those communities can be farmers fumigated with herbicides by coca eradication planes, social leaders threatened by military-tied paramilitaries, migrants turned back from seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, or reformers worried that the power balance between civilians and soldiers is swinging back to the military. The countries I’ve gotten to know most over the years are the ones that get the most aid: Colombia, Mexico, and Central America’s Northern Triangle.
What led you to this work?
Growing up in New Jersey’s New York suburbs in a half-Jewish, half-Scots-Irish household, I have no family or childhood ties to Latin America. I’ve been interested in it, though, because I first became aware of the rest of the world as a kid in the 1980s. Central America was a front-page, lead the evening-news story almost every day when I was in junior high. I was bored in New Jersey, wanted to travel a lot when I grew up, and really upset that the United States-which I’d learned in elementary school stood for freedom and rights-was propping up these vicious dictators.
That all stuck with me. When I started college in 1988 and met my advisor for the first time, I said “I want to work on U.S. policy toward Latin America.” I never changed my mind.
Why are you proud to work at WOLA?
There’s nowhere else in the United States where you can share a workspace with 30 people who have such deep knowledge, curiosity, and love for Latin America. There are places where you can find 30 people who are experts about Latin America-government, for instance-but the curiosity and love aren’t quite there.
My colleagues try to view the region through the eyes of partners there who want to make their countries fairer, more sustainable places to live. Too many other U.S. institutions view the region through the lens of U.S. interests (however they define it) or the investment climate.
What should people be on the lookout for in the coming months in your area of expertise?
Watch Latin America’s militaries. Even before the coronavirus hit, they were starting to play roles we hadn’t seen them playing since the democratic transitions of 30-plus years ago. More soldiers on the streets acting like police, a greater role in putting down social protest, more presidents seeking their political support so they could do questionable things.
Now, the region is facing a crisis that’s sort of like a natural disaster. In a natural disaster, it’s normal to see the armed forces playing emergency roles like logistics, delivering food, search-and-rescue, or keeping order. But this is no normal natural disaster. It’s a disaster that’s happening everywhere at once, for an indefinite period of time.
It’s going to become normal for heavily armed, combat-trained, camouflage-wearing soldiers to be out in the streets, among the citizens, for several months or more, playing a host of roles that normally correspond to civilians. Once you ratchet up that kind of militarization, it’s hard to ratchet it back down. Especially when economies are in free fall and all but the top 10% aren’t even sure how they’re going to be feeding themselves.
I don’t think Latin America is headed back to 1970s-style military junta governments. But I’m deeply worried about a future in which elected civilians are forced to share power with the generals, who keep them on a tight leash and restrict civil society’s freedoms in the name of order and security. And I’m also worried that the default response of the United States-regardless of who is president in 2021-will be to act in ways that prop up these military roles in the name of stability and investor confidence. That’s why we have to keep monitoring these issues and pressing our concerns.
There’s a lot more to worry about with coronavirus, obviously. At the border, the Trump administration is using the emergency as a pretext to implement a deadly agenda, ignoring generations of immigration law and turning Mexican border cities, U.S. detention centers, and deportation flights into COVID-19 vectors. In Colombia, it’s going to be very, very hard to keep directing resources and political will into implementing the peace accord and halting the slow-motion massacre of social leaders. That was hard enough even without a global pandemic.
What are some of the best things you’ve read or seen during this period of self-isolation?
This is lame, but I’ve watched zero new movies during our social isolation so far. I’ve spent about half an hour a day watching TV, and that’s usually been an old episode of Arrested Development, Silicon Valley or The Simpsons after dinner with the family. I just finished slogging through the same fiction book I’d taken out of the library in early March, and it kept putting me to sleep. I did order 15 books from a local bookstore, but they were still on the floor in their shrink wrap 2 weeks after they were delivered.
I know this is a terribly type-A Washington thing to say, but I’ve been finding diversion in my work. (Remember, I’m a weirdo who has been into this since I was in junior high.) Social isolation has vastly increased the portion of the day I get to spend doing the part of the job that’s fun for me, where I get to do research and make stuff, rather than sit in meetings, talk on the phone, and answer endless emails. I’ve been writing a lot, coding a lot, making new web pages like components of our Colombia Peace site. I’ve done 16 audio podcasts where I interview smart people. I have piles of saved reports, analysis, official documents, and testimonies that I finally have some time to read and add to my geeky data system. I guess this is what’s fun for me, what gets the dopamine flowing in the brain.
While doing all this, I do listen to a lot of music, most of it the sort of indie pop that middle-aged dads like me listen to. I recommend the latest records by Waxahatchee, Christine and the Queens, Beach Slang, Soccer Mommy, Caroline Polachek, Caribou, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, Jenny Lewis, and Grimes.
If you were a baseball player, what would be your walk-up song?
Probably some 80s spandex-pants hair metal like Guns N Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle,” Van Halen’s “Everybody Wants Some,” or Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again.” Total crowd-pleasers. Then I’d strike out on 3 pitches.