Weekly adamisacson.com - Issue #27

Wednesday, March 11 was the last day I went out in public and spent a lot of time at close quarters with strangers. I boarded a very crowded Metro train to Capitol Hill, then sat in a packed hearing room to hear the commanders of U.S. Southern Command and U.S. Northern Command give testimony in the House Armed Services Committee. (The hearing room wasn’t actually packed, but the tiny section they had reserved for those of us who aren’t government employees was jammed, cheek by jowl.)

There, the commander of Southern Command, Adm. Craig Faller, told the committee that something big was in the works. “There will be an increase in U.S. military presence in the hemisphere later this year.," he read. "This will include an enhanced presence of ships, aircraft, and security forces to reassure our partners, improve U.S. and partner readiness and interoperability, and counter a range of threats to include illicit narcoterrorism.”

This isn't too surprising on its own. Adm. Faller admits that with current assets, his command only stops about 9 percent of the cocaine headed by sea toward the United States. Between that and a new way to rattle sabers at Venezuela, a surge of boats and maritime surveillance planes sounded like the sort of announcement that we could just as easily have heard from the Obama administration.

Then, three Wednesdays later in the White House, at the beginning of the daily COVID-19 press briefing, the “increase” that Adm. Faller had announced was repackaged as some sort of bombshell. The president, the defense secretary, the attorney-general, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff kicked off the briefing by announcing the same thing that Adm. Faller had foreshadowed, but with a lot more exclamation points. Here’s Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs:

We came upon some intelligence some time ago that the drug cartels, as a result of COVID-19, were going to try to take advantage of the situation and try to infiltrate additional drugs into our country. As we know, 70,000 Americans die on an average annual basis to drugs. That’s unacceptable. We’re at war with COVID-19, we’re at war with terrorists, and we are at war with the drug cartels as well.
This is the United States military. You will not penetrate this country. You will not get past Jump Street. You’re not going to come in here and kill additional Americans. And we will marshal whatever assets are required to prevent your entry into this country to kill Americans.

I don’t know what “you will not get past Jump Street” means. (It was a late-80s cop show where Johnny Depp got his start, but that doesn’t seem relevant here.) But I know from Newsweek that this blockbuster had already been in the works since at least January, which makes any tie to COVID-19 dubious. (A “senior Pentagon official” told Newsweek that the deployment “has nothing to do with the virus.”) I know that the public affairs operations of Southern Command and other units are not running any photos of new boats and planes operating in the Caribbean and the eastern Pacific—they must be still on their way. We know from Foreign Policy that there was fierce opposition to this deployment across the Pentagon.

If all of this is right, then re-read that quote above. Was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff lying, in full four-star uniform, at the White House podium? In order to help the President create a political distraction? God, I hope not. But if so, then the Defense Department might as well just suspend its “Defense Institution Building” programs in Latin America and elsewhere, because we’d have no business teaching anyone else how to avoid politicization of national armed forces.

Anyway, hours after Wednesday’s White House announcement, I got together (virtually) with Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde from WOLA's Venezuela program. We came up with a list of questions, then started typing what we know, and what we need to know, into a Google Doc. The result is a really tough memo where we come up with some fact-filled, and deeply skeptical, conclusions.

3 more podcasts

A silver lining of "social distancing" has been able to pin down some really smart people and record conversations with them. I've done that 10 times in the past 3 weeks for WOLA's Podcast. The three from last week were a joy to record, even though the subject matter was often grim:

I've got at least three more really good ones queued up for this coming week.

The Apple Music feed is here; the Spotify feed is here; the Overcast feed is here; and the Libsyn feed is here.

  • Writing in the California Sunday Magazine, Nadja Drost reports from coastal Colombia and Panama’s densely jungled Darién Gap, where she finds migrants from Cameroon, Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere. This is the most dangerous, and one of the least reported-on, stages of the journey that many “extra-continental” migrants take to the United States.
  • Jeremy McDermott of InsightCrime led an investigation that appears as a multi-part narrative about alias “Memo Fantasma,” a Colombian paramilitary drug trafficker who has a low profile, friends in high places, and a remarkable ability to get away with it: he now lives in Spain.
  • The UN Verification Mission in Colombia has published its latest quarterly report on the country’s peace process. Among the many facts and statistics is an especially troubling one: in the first 84 days of 2020, the UN Human Rights office “received 56 complaints regarding killings of social leaders and human rights defenders, 6 of which have been verified.” That’s exactly one reported murder every one and a half days. (The NGO INDEPAZ counts 71 in 87 days.)
  • Víctor Mijares and Alejandro Cardozo Uzcátegui write about civil-military relations in Venezuela, where civilians have gained supremacy over the military through “the disarticulation of the military nucleus by means of de-professionalization, degradation of operative ranks, and politicization of all its spaces.” (The article appears in Foreign Affairs Latinoamérica, which has generously made its entire current issue available free of charge. Several articles are worth a read, though their authors are overwhelmingly male and they unavoidably offer a snapshot of the pre-COVID-19 reality.)
  • At El Faro, Valeria Guzmán documents what happens after populist President Nayib Bukele offers a $300 handout to 1.5 million of El Salvador’s neediest citizens, who cannot work because of the coronavirus emergency. People end up forced to throng chaotically outside closed offices, in dangerously close quarters, as they wait to get paid.

Government reports relevant to Latin America obtained in March

  • The State Department’s annual report on other countries’ counter-drug efforts, with some information about U.S. aid.
2020 International Narcotics Control Strategy ReportPDF

  • Intricately detailed tables of the status of aid to Central America between 2013 and 2018, from a GAO performance audit.
U.S. Assistance to Central America: Status of FundingPDF

  • Two GAO reports about the Homeland Security Department’s processing—and cruel separating—of apprehended migrant families.
Southwest Border: Actions Needed to Address Fragmentation in DHS’s Processes for Apprehended Family MembersPDF
Southwest Border: Actions Needed to Improve DHS Processing of Families and Coordination between DHS and HHSPDF

I see five, all hosted by other organizations—an unusual amount for "Holy Week," when Latin America usually shuts down. Since everything's shut down already, this week isn't much different than normal.

Monday, April 6

  • 9:30 at migrationpolicy.org: Humanitarian Protection in an Era of Pandemic (RSVP required).
  • 2:00 at atlanticcouncil.org: Impacto económico y social del COVID-19 en Colombia(RSVP required).

Tuesday, April 7

  • 10:30–12:00 at wilsoncenter.org: Implementing USMCA: A Conversation with Luz Maria de la Mora, Mexico’s Undersecretary for Foreign Trade (RSVP required).
  • 3:00–4:30 at thedialogue.org: La Educación Virtual en Tiempos del Covid-19 (RSVP required).

Wednesday, April 8

Other Stuff

  • Here's my March playlist of "indie pop for late-middle-age dads who sit at a computer with the music on, like, all the time." 23 songs I've had on heavy rotation, in Apple, Spotify, Tidal, and YouTube formats.
  • Coming Monday: COVID-19 is revealing what it would look like if the entire Trump anti-immigration and border agendas could become reality all at once, and man is it ugly. Worse, it's also likely to spread the virus. We’ll have a strong commentary up on the WOLA website in the morning. I may do a video also.
  • Adam Schlesinger, the frontman for the great band Fountains of Wayne, died of coronavirus complications last week at age 52. He wrote the perfect power-pop song many times over. Here's one of them, "Troubled Times," from 1999:
Fountains of Wayne - Troubled Times

And finally,

Some Twitter humor

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Jamie Larson