This is sort of a "double issue" because I missed last week's newsletter, for the first time all year. This time last week, Sunday and Monday, was a hard time here in Washington. My family had gone to the Sunday May 31 protests, and the atmosphere was very tense; after we left, there were skirmishes and fires. Monday, the city had a 7pm curfew, and peaceful protesters were tear-gassed before it went into effect so that Trump could be photographed holding up a Bible. Border Patrol, DEA, and other federal agents swarmed around the city. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs visited troops "on the line" downtown while the Defense Secretary spoke of "dominating the battlespace." Low-flying military helicopters blew prop wash on protesters. The city saw the most property damage and looting in decades.
I live near downtown, and we weren't sleeping well amid the helicopter fly-bys and the pop of tear-gas canisters a mile or so away. I'm sorry, but it just wasn't a good time to write a newsletter.
Happily, the momentum shifted over the rest of last week. The protests we attended Wednesday were huge and inspiring, with blocks full of people singing and sending strong messages. Saturday's protests were peaceful, broad-based, and overwhelming (and also almost entirely masked and as socially distant as possible). By Sunday, other states' National Guardsmen were gone.
You don't need to read my semi-informed take on George Floyd and structural racism; I've spent my adult life working on security in Latin America, not at home. I'll only note how grateful I am that it's now common for people to carry internet-connected video cameras wherever they go. This never-ending stream of shocking depictions of police abuse, in high definition and shared with the world almost instantly, would've been impossible even 10 years ago. Then, a lot of people just "tripped and fell" because the police said so.
The African-American community had been saying for decades that this sort of brutal treatment was common. But police violence only rarely broke into the media when it was depicted just by neighborhood residents' testimonies, for reasons we're all coming to understand now. The 1991 LAPD beating of Rodney King was a milestone because someone caught it on an early camcorder. Then, the tech was expensive, and the video's spread relied on the media because there was no World Wide Web. Now, we're seeing that it's just as bad as community leaders had been saying—and that our law enforcement institutions' culture of denial and resistance to accountability rivals those of many Latin American security forces.
Mobile phone cameras are getting common now in Latin America, too. There's a growing number of important examples of their use to document abuse, for instance during the protests that swept the region late last year. In rural areas, too, we are seeing alarming video in Colombia of coca eradicators mistreating farm families, or a striking video last year of a community confronting the military murderers of ex-FARC combatant Dimar Torres while they tried to bury him in a shallow grave.
Videos show that the abuse is way more common than dominant narratives have let on. The irony is not lost on me that for 20 years I've been in downtown Washington documenting rights abuses in Latin America, while similar behavior was probably going on, unpunished and way more frequently than we'd known, just a few neighborhoods away.
Bring the Trainers Home: This Is No Time for U.S. Military Personnel To Be Advising Offensive Operations in Colombia
On May 28 the United States’ embassy in Colombia posted a brief announcement that “a U.S. Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB)” will arrive in early June “to help Colombia in its fight against drug trafficking.” This has been huge news in Colombia, and I've talked to a lot of press and partners about it.
Here's an analysis that I posted in English and Spanish. Though I explain that there's little new about this particular deployment, the SFAB should stay home this time. It's a bad for the United States to be sending dozens of combat advisors and trainers to assist offensive military operations in “post-conflict” Colombia.
Bring the Trainers Home: This Is No Time for U.S. Military Personnel To Be Advising Offensive Operations in Colombia - Colombia Peace
The SFAB should stay home. This is not a time for the United States to be sending dozens of combat advisors and trainers to “post-conflict” Colombia.
WOLA Podcast: "If they can kill Berta Cáceres, they can kill anybody": Nina Lakhani on the danger to social leaders
“If they can kill Berta Cáceres, they can kill anybody”: Nina Lakhani on the Danger to Social Leaders - WOLA
I’ve always enjoyed talking to Nina Lakhani over the years as she produced excellent reporting from Mexico and Central America for The Guardian. And I enjoyed recording this podcast with her, as she prepared for the release of her book Who Killed Berta Cáceres: Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet (2020, Verso).
WOLA Podcast: Venezuela: COVID-19, Sanctions, Outside Powers, Florida Politics, and the Search for a Political Solution
Venezuela: COVID-19, Sanctions, Outside Powers, Florida Politics, and the Search for a Political Solution - WOLA
It’s great to have two Venezuela experts on staff to explain what’s happening there. With great nuance, rare clarity, and zero shouting.
This podcast, WOLA’s first to focus on Venezuela since January, features Geoff Ramsey, WOLA’s director for Venezuela, and David Smilde, a WOLA senior fellow specializing in Venezuela. (Dr. Smilde is the Charles A. and Leo M. Favrot Professor of Human Relations at Tulane University.)
This situation report covers a lot of ground. Ramsey and Smilde explain the current humanitarian situation in Venezuela, with the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic likely to come, along with the effect of sanctions. The discussion moves on to alternatives, like what it would take to bring the country’s ever-worsening crisis to a political solution. This brings up the role of external powers like Russia, China, Iran, and the United States. Ramsey and Smilde unpack the current state of U.S. policy, which at the White House level is heavily driven by Florida electoral politics. They note that the Trump administration’s mixed messages are inadvertently dividing a Venezuelan opposition that is already in a bad moment after a botched mercenary invasion at the beginning of May.
Listen at the link above, or download the .mp3 file here.
3 videos of me speaking Spanish…
While I'm able to communicate just fine in Spanish, I'm hardly an orator and my accent is terrible (it's not so good in English either). Still, I enjoyed speaking to three different audiences in Colombia, mostly about the deployment of U.S. troops discussed above. Despite my inarticulateness, I think I got a lot of information out there that would not have gotten in front of Colombian audiences otherwise.
On Semana magazine's "El Poder" program, with Ariel Ávila and Sen. Antonio Sanguino:
At an online "Diálogo de Saberes" event hosted by the Colombian NGO Planeta Paz and its great director, Daniel García-Peña:
A breakfast with a great, mostly Colombia-based group from Rodeemos El Diálogo:
5 links from the week of May 31-June 6
- In late May the U.S. State Department quietly certified that the Bukele government in El Salvador, the Giammattei government in Guatemala, and the Juan Orlando Hernandez government in Honduras met all human rights and anti-corruption requirements that Congress put in place as conditions for receiving aid. El Faro reportson everything the State Department had to ignore in order to “certify” El Salvador.
- The Project on Government Oversight compiles border wall contract data and finds that 38 construction contracts have been signed with 22 companies for a total of $6.1 billion, “which is already more than what Congress appropriated for the wall since Trump took office.”
- While FARC members are participating in Colombia’s post-conflict transitional justice system, their former kidnap victims are increasingly angry at the ex-guerrillas’ efforts to downplay the barbarity of how they were treated while in custody. Andrés Bermúdez Liévano reports for justiceinfo.net.
- InsightCrime published a great interview with Nina Lakhani, a journalist who published a book this week about murdered activist Berta Cáceres, and the struggle of indigenous and environmental defenders in Honduras. (Also listen to my podcast interview.)
- Lima’s El Comercio visits Madre De Dios, a region of Peru’s Amazon basin that has been ravaged for several years by widespread illicit gold mining. Reporter Francesca García Delgado finds that the COVID-19 pandemic has done nothing to slow the damage.
5 links from the week of May 24-30
- I haven’t gotten through all of this yet, but a coalition of media outlets from 14 countries, from Mexico to Colombia to Cameroon to Nepal, has put together a remarkable series of multimedia reports about migrants from far corners of the world transiting Latin America en route to the United States. It’s called Migrants from Another World, it’s bilingual, and I command you to visit it.
- El Salvador’s El Faro visited the dangerous border town of Matamoros, Mexico, where thousands of asylum-seeking migrants remain trapped, vulnerable to crime and disease, unable to make their case on the U.S. side of the border. It’s poignant to read this through the eyes of a Central American reporter, as most of those trapped in Matamoros are Central American.
- Researchers at the University of Texas’s Strauss Center dug through 30 years of data and found that more migrants have died in the state (3,253 in 22 years), mostly of dehydration, exposure, or drowning, than Border Patrol counts in the entire four-state border region.
- – Also on migration, and given honorable mention here because it’s audio, not text: National Public Radio’s Latino USA program created a 2-part series about the Trump administration’s crackdown on people seeking protection in the United States. Part one of The Moving Border reports from the U.S.-Mexico border in Ciudad Juárez; part two reports from the Mexico-Guatemala border in Tapachula.
- The Venezuelan human rights group PROVEA published an infuriating report about persecution and harassment of civil society during the first two months of the country’s COVID-19 lockdown. It’s in English and Spanish.
- Somos Defensores, the coalition of Colombian groups that performs careful documentation of attacks on social leaders and human rights defenders, published its annual report covering 2019. It found a decrease in murders of social leaders in 2019—though not as deep a reduction as the government claims—but an increase in other forms of attack and intimidation. One suspects, tragically, that the organization’s 2020 interim reports will show a renewed increase in murders.
Latin America-related online events this week
Monday, June 8, 2020
- 11:00 at youtube.com: Pulsiones en Latinoamérica: Crisis Económica y Polarización Social.
- 2:00 at migrationpolicy.org: Beyond the Border: U.S.-Mexican Migration Accord Has Ushered in Sweeping Change in Mexico in Its First Year (RSVP required).
- 5:00 at sociales.uexternado.co: Las FFMM de Colombia: ¿Cambio de Doctrina?.
Wednesday, June 10, 2020
- 11:00-12:00 at wilsoncenter.org: Pay the Piper: Latin America’s COVID-19 Response and Prospects for Recovery (RSVP required).
- 11:00-12:00 at heritage.org: Immigration and Border Security: Where Are We Now and What’s Next? (RSVP required).
- 6:00-8:00 at nacla.org: El Despojo: Land, Migration & Resistance in Central America (RSVP required).
Thursday, June 11, 2020
- 1:00-2:00 at csis.org: What Will Work and Education Look Like in Latin America Post Covid-19?
- 1:00-2:00 at wilsoncenter.org: Clean Energy in Mexico Webinar (RSVP required).
Songs I had on heavy rotation in May
Here are some recent indie-pop gems I listened to a lot last month, as Apple, Spotify, Tidal, and YouTube playlists. Hope you find something you enjoy too.
Government reports relevant to Latin America obtained in May
Only three this month. I blame the pandemic.
Latest edition of a regular CRS report on political developments, issues with U.S. foreign policy, and events in selected countries.
- Mark P. Sullivan, June S. Beittel, Nese F. DeBruyne, Peter J. Meyer, Clare Ribando Seelke, Maureen Taft-Morales, M. Angeles Villareal, Latin America and the Caribbean: Issues in the 116th Congress (Washington: Congressional Research Service, May 21, 2020) https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R46258.
Latest edition of a regular CRS report on developments in Cuba and U.S. policy concerns.
- Mark P. Sullivan, Cuba: U.S. Policy in the 116th Congress (Washington: Congressional Research Service, May 14, 2020) https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R45657.
The GAO discusses how well (or poorly) the State Department and USAID have monitored and evaluated programs to Mexico under the “Mérida Initiative” aid package. This report does not report comprehensively on all aid to Mexico.
- U.S. Assistance to Mexico: State Department Could Improve its Monitoring of Mérida Initiative Projects (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, May 12, 2020) https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-388.