2018 Summer Intern Fellow:
Bo Carlson | Latin America Working Group
End of Summer Reflection
During the summer of 2018, I worked as an intern at the Latin American Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization based in Washington, DC. LAWG’s mission is to promote human rights in US foreign policy, focusing specifically on Mexico, Cuba, Central America, and Colombia. As the Colombia Program Intern, I learned both the substance of these human rights issues and the process of advocacy at a small NGO.
Reading articles from both English- and Spanish-language newspapers was a great introduction to the current events in Colombia. At LAWG I had the opportunity to summarize these articles in a bilingual news brief sent out each week to over 1500 subscribers. I was also able to conduct in-depth research on the Hidroituango Dam project in the Colombian state of Antioquia and peace process implementation in the southern city of Tumaco. Through these projects, I learned about the effects of US foreign policy and the principal issues facing Colombia today.
On process, I learned about the differences between NGOs and think tanks in shaping policy. While think tanks evaluate policies and make nuanced recommendations to Congress and the Executive Branch, advocacy organizations such as LAWG are concerned with rapid response to human rights violations. The language that LAWG uses in its social media is intended to provoke a reaction and inspire people to call their Members of Congress or make a donation.
I saw LAWG and similar organizations play a role in effecting change, such as when the Trump Administration moderated its policy of family separation at the US-Mexico border in response to public pressure. I also learned how their work can complement that of think tanks. When LAWG advised Obama Administration staffers on the Alliance for Prosperity aid program to Central America, they stressed the conclusions of the Wilson Center and the Inter-American Dialogue on the ineffectiveness of military-style policing. These meetings led to stronger human rights conditions on funding, and several countries in the Northern Triangle have since seen a decline in violent crime.
Although I appreciate the role of advocacy organizations, I’ve found that in the long term, I am more interested in the work of think tanks and government than in the work of activists. I was able to meet with many staffers and scholars after work, and with every meeting I felt more excited about the career opportunities that exist after graduation. The thought of developing a regional specialization is especially appealing to me, and over the summer, I got to know and respect many of the most important US thinkers on Latin America policy.
I am studying abroad in Argentina this semester, where I am taking classes on regional politics and economics and getting more practice with Spanish. Just in the few weeks that I have been in Buenos Aires, I have seen firsthand many aspects of Argentine politics that I had previously only read about. The role of protests is especially strong, and I’ve seen just how polarized the opinions are on the United States and international institutions such as the IMF and WTO. These experiences have introduced me to perspectives that I don’t always agree with, which is the best way to sharpen my views. Through this experience and the lessons I drew at my internship, I hope to bring a more informed perspective to my classes and co-curricular activities at Duke.
Bridging the Gap over Infrastructure
Often we worry about polarization between the left and right. Other times we express concern over the urban-rural divide or the growing inequality between the richest Americans and the rest of the country. At my internship at the Latin America Working Group, I’ve learned about another hard-to-bridge gap: that between economists and activists on how to best approach infrastructure development.
I saw the divide firsthand while researching the Hidroituango Dam, which is currently being built along the Cauca River in northwest Colombia. When completed, the generator is projected to provide 17% of Colombia’s electricity demand. However, Hidroituango has also come under fire for its environmental and social consequences.
Since the Latin America Working Group works primarily with NGOs and human rights activists, my initial introduction to Hidroituango was from its victims. I read news reports about how the rising levels of the Cauca River had displaced tens of thousands from port communities. I watched videos of a flash flood that destroyed two bridges, two schools, and a rural health center. Most disturbingly, I heard from Isabel Zuleta, a Colombian activist from the Movimiento Ríos Vivos de Antioquia (MRVA). At an eventhosted by the Washington Office on Latin America, Zuleta recounted how two colleagues from the MRVA were killed for their activism against the dam project. Their assassinations remain unsolved, an all-too-common occurrence in a country where a civic leader is killed every four days on average.
When I attended an event on Chinese investment in Latin America, I heard a very different perspective. The speakers included three academics who specialized in economics or political economy, with a businessman added to round out the panel. Each of the speakers expressed optimism about the role that China could play in financing Latin American infrastructure projects. Chilean economist and diplomat Jorge Heine noted that in 2017 and in previous years, Latin America spent the smallest percentage of GDP on infrastructure for any developing region other than Sub-Saharan Africa. This infrastructure gap, according to Ambassador Heine, was a major reason for the region’s lackluster growth and the persistence of poverty. Heine attributed the deficit to an unhealthy level of hesitation among bureaucrats and businessmen when considering a new project, arguing that the region could learn a great deal from the Chinese model of fast-paced development. Dr. Stephen Kaplan of George Washington University noted during Q&A that there are trade-offs between economic growth and environmental, labor, and governance concerns. However, this was barely a footnote to the broader discussion in favor of more infrastructure spending.
Neither of these perspectives gave a complete view of the debate over infrastructure investment. The activists are right to call attention to the social harms of the dam project, and their concerns are especially salient after the Cauca River flooded in May 2018. However, civil society organizations have opposed Hidroituango since at least 2010, long before the most harmful consequences of the dam were realized. When activists prematurely argue against infrastructure projects and don’t acknowledge the benefits that they could provide to the economy, they undermine their leverage when their commentary is needed the most. The economists are similarly mistaken. By assigning blame to businesses and governments for being too hesitant about infrastructure, Ambassador Heine risks conflating the right kind of bureaucratic obstacles—environmental impact surveys, engineering assessments, community consultations—with the bad. Economists should respect the input of activists, just as activists should respect the contributions of economists.
Both the activists and the economists add value to our conversation about development, but we can’t have one group without the other. If activists always had their way, construction would be stalled and the economy would remain stagnant. If economists always had theirs, then the communities most directly affected by infrastructure projects would be left behind. A process where both parties recognize the value of each others’ contributions is the only way to promote development while respecting the rights of the community.
Great Expectations and Unintended Consequences
Earlier this month I attended an event at the recently opened DC office of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs. The mood was optimistic, and not just because of the new office space. Set to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the discussion focused on what lessons we could learn from the Northern Ireland peace process. Three of the five panelists had worked on that agreement in the 1990s; the others were there to compare it with the Colombian government’s 2016 peace deal with the FARC guerrilla group.
Each of the speakers expressed confidence in how Colombia was handling the accords. They noted that even in Northern Ireland, peace is an ongoing process. Perhaps no panelist was as confident, however, as the Colombian Ambassador to the US, Camilo Reyes. Detailing how civil wars have been part of Colombia’s history since before independence, Reyes commented, “When you look at the peace process, it is true that it is an agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC. But it represents a much heavier weight that comes from history, that comes from even the founding of our nation.” With sweeping language, the ambassador implied that the 2016 accords were a turning point not only in the government’s conflict with the FARC, but also in Colombia’s centuries-old struggle with violence.
Although Ambassador Reyes’ hope for the future is laudable, he should be careful about setting expectations too high for the FARC peace accords. Even after a mostly-successful FARC disarmament, questions remain. Between 6% and 15% of FARC guerrillas have refused to follow orders and give up their arms, and the threat of more severe punishment and delayed implementation may encourage more fighters to join dissident groups. Beyond FARC, there still exist other violent organizations, including the Éjercito de Liberación Nacional (ELN) and the Ejército de Liberación Popular (EPL)—which are currently fighting against each other near the Venezuelan border—as well as right-wing paramilitary groups. The 2016 peace accords are not designed to end conflict with all of these organizations, just the one with FARC. Listening to the ambassador’s statements, however, it’s hard to maintain reasonable expectations for the peace agreement.
Overselling an agreement can be just as dangerous as not selling it strongly enough. When President Obama promoted the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—JCPOA), he didn’t just sell it as a solid agreement that would limit Iran’s ability to build a nuclear bomb in exchange for sanctions relief. Instead, he promised that “every pathway to a nuclear weapon is cut off.” The president minimized Iran’s conventional capabilities, claiming that even with sanctions relief, the Islamic Republic would not become the dominant power in the region. Finally, he argued that the deal would not lead to an increase in funding for Hezbollah since Iran was already backing the terrorist group under heavy sanctions. He was careful not to promise that the nuclear deal would lead to a change in government, but he expressed some cautious optimism that the deal might lead to a Nixon-meets-Mao turning point between the US and Iran.
Had Obama acknowledged the shortcomings and simply sold the JCPOA as a tool to restrict Iran’s nuclear buildup, it would have been much harder to criticize the deal. Instead, he promised to halt Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon without incurring any costs in conventional arms proliferation. By pledging so much at so little a cost, President Obama opened the door to a raft of criticism when Iran’s government didn’t change and when it received sanctions relief to put toward non-nuclear military spending. This criticism eventually persuaded President Trump to abandon the agreement in May 2018, reversing the progress that was made in the Obama administration.
With the FARC peace accords, just like with the Iran nuclear deal, expectations should be tempered. Ending the civil war with the FARC is an accomplishment that Ambassador Reyes and the rest of the panel can proudly stand behind. There’s no need to promise that the accords will end three centuries of conflict in the country; in fact, making such a promise could put at risk the very peace deal they’re trying to save.
Thinking About Latin America
I’m excited to join the Latin America Working Group as an intern with the Colombia Program this summer. LAWG sits at the intersection of activism and policy, working with civil society organizations and policymakers to ensure that human rights are central to the United States’ presence in the region. I knew I was interested in foreign policy when I arrived at Duke, but it took me a while to find a region that I wanted to focus on. Eventually I decided to settle on an area that no one else I knew was studying—Latin America. I'm now three weeks into my internship at LAWG, and I couldn't be more satisfied with my choice.
Latin America rarely makes US headlines in the way that topics like North Korea, Iran, and Russia do, and think tanks have fewer scholars focused on the area. At the White House, the region is rarely at the top of anyone’s minds: the Trump Administration’s December 2017 National Security Strategy presented the Western Hemisphere second to last, followed only by Africa.
Americans’ inattention to detail regarding Latin America has real consequences. While the Western Hemisphere may not be the most pressing concern for American policymakers, the United States’ actions have a tremendous impact on the region.
Three instances in the last few years highlight how even a small misstep by US officials can have severe implications for Latin American politics. The first involves former Secretary of State John Kerry. In April 2013, a few months before his first trip to South America, Secretary Kerry referred to Latin America as the United States’ “backyard.” Although the language may at first seem innocuous, for many Latin Americans, Kerry’s phrase was a reminder of the age of the Monroe Doctrine and the US’ support for authoritarian leaders during the Cold War. Bolivia’s President Evo Morales took advantage of the public reaction to expel USAID from the country, leaving the Bolivian people without US support on education, agriculture, and other issues.
The second instance involves the man who succeeded John Kerry, Rex Tillerson. In June 2017, Secretary Tillerson expressed the need to return to “spraying” as a method of forced eradication of coca in Colombia. In the following days, State Department officials had to walk back the secretary’s comment, clarifying that he was referring only to ground-based eradication and that this was an issue for Colombia to address as a sovereign state. The mixed messages provoked concern within Colombia that the government would return to aerial fumigation, which had been suspended in 2015 after the chemical used was identified as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization. What started as an aside during the 2017 State Department budget hearing turned into a debacle for the Colombian government and severely damaged the United States’ relationship with Colombia.
The most recent example of American officials’ missteps causing outsize problems for countries in the Western Hemisphere involves Senator Marco Rubio. In early May 2018, Senator Rubio placed a hold on $6 million in funding for the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a legal body set up by the UN to investigate corruption and organized crime. Sen. Rubio’s actions came in response to allegations that CICIG was operating on behalf of Vladimir Putin’s government, most notably in its prosecution of Russian immigrant Victor Bitkov. Analysis published in the Washington Postand the Economist found no evidence for these allegations, but Guatemala has nonetheless become a pawn for US politicians aiming for a tough posture on Russia. Since its founding in 2006, CICIG has received domestic and international acclaim for promoting the rule of law in Guatemala. It has led to the prosecution of two presidents involved in corruption, decreased impunity rates for homicides by 23% over a 6 year period, and inspired a partner organization, MACCIH, in Honduras. The current President of Guatemala, Jimmy Morales, has repeatedly tried to discredit CICIG; with the unwitting help of a powerful US senator like Marco Rubio, he just might succeed.
Each of these cases illustrates the powerful influence that the United States has in Latin America. Given the effect that the smallest rhetorical misstep can have on a country, US policymakers have an obligation to remain informed about Latin America. At my internship with the Latin America Working Group, I have a chance not only to become a bit more informed about the United States’ relationship with the continent, but also to see how those in the DC policy world think about our Latin American neighbors.