Bo's Internship  Organization of American States | Washington, DC

Week 4: Venezuela, Not Just One Crisis

July 1, 2019

This summer, I’m interning at the Organization of American States (OAS), a multilateral organization composed of the 35 countries in North and South America. I’ll be working with the OAS’ Secretariat for Strengthening Democracy, specifically with the team that oversees missions to combat corruption in Honduras, resolve the Guatemala-Belize border dispute, and support the Colombian Peace Process.

Each week I’ll write a short post, drawing on an experience and making a connection to what I’ve studied or to an issue in current events. I’ll end each post with a few stray observations from the week. All views are my own.

It was quiet at the OAS Headquarters this week, and many of my colleagues were out of the office. Rather than going on vacation, however, they were hard at work in Medellín, Colombia, where dozens of OAS officials and foreign ministers arrived to take part in the OAS General Assembly.

While each member country of the OAS designates an ambassador to sit in Permanent Council Meetings throughout the year, the General Assembly is a higher profile, annual event.

Venezuela drew the most attention at this year’s summit, and for good reason. In this week’s article, I’ll describe a few aspects of Venezuela’s political, humanitarian, and refugee crisis. In my blog next week, I’ll introduce some of the potential solutions.

Not Just One Crisis

Over the last six years, Nicolás Maduro has led Venezuela into an increasingly dire humanitarian and political crisis. Like his late predecessor, Hugo Chávez, Maduro has pursued left-wing, populist policies. Unlike Chávez, however, Maduro has not received the same support from the Venezuelan people. His rise to power in 2013 coincided with a drop in global oil prices, which dealt a blow to a Venezuelan economy that was heavily dependent on oil exports. Maduro’s mismanagement of the nationalized oil sector further decreased output.

Together, mismanagement and lower oil prices caused foreign demand for the Venezuelan bolivar to collapse, contributing to a hyperinflation crisis that has only gotten worse with more government intervention. (Estimates of the 2018 inflation rate range from the Maduro government’s figure of 130,000% from the opposition’s figure of 1,700,000%.)

Hyperinflation has serious consequences as it puts necessities like food and medicine out of reach for ordinary Venezuelans. In 2016, the Venezuelan Minister of Health acknowledged that maternal mortality had risen by 65% in the previous year and cases of malaria had increased by 76%. She was fired by Maduro only days later. Unable to afford basic medical supplies like gauze and syringes, one hospital reported in 2019 that 14 children had died in a single week from a treatable illness.

Given the grave situation in their home country, over 4 million Venezuelans have fled—and the number of refugees may surpass that of Syria in the near future. Many have looked to find refuge in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. In the short run, this imposes hardships on recipient communities, many of which are poor. In the long run, it contributes to a brain drain in Venezuela, which is robbed every single day of doctors, teachers, and professionals who could help the country rebuild after the present crisis has ended.

“Take the Three Worst Cases. That’s Venezuela”

A few weeks ago, I went to an event at the American Enterprise Institute with Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund. When asked about Venezuela, she responded, “Take the three worst cases … that we’ve ever handled in the history of the IMF. Bring them all together; that’s Venezuela.” In the context of a humanitarian emergency, an exodus of refugees, and a government unwilling to endure criticism, Venezuela is far from an easy case to resolve. In my next blog post, I’ll discuss the role of the opposition in Venezuela, the response of the OAS and regional groups, and potential solutions to the humanitarian disaster.

Stray Observations

  1. Daniela Flamini, a recent graduate of Duke, wrote an excellent series of articles on Venezuela for the Kenan Institute for Ethics’ Global Human Rights Scholars Program in 2016 and 2017. I highly recommend reading it, not only for the information, but also for the vivid way she writes about it. Here is the link to her first entry, and here you can view the rest of the blog.
  2. My 21st birthday was on Friday, and many of the interns joined me for a happy hour after work. I went on a day hike to Theodore Roosevelt Island with a few friends on Saturday, so it’s been a fun weekend!


Week 3: China in Latin America

June 24, 2019

During my third week, I continued research on the Belize-Guatemala territorial dispute and the lessons that the OAS can draw from it. It’s been great to have an independent project to work on, and I’m especially interested in how the report that I write during my internship can be helpful in future conflict resolution missions.

Outside of work, I spent some of my free time applying to a conference in the fall on US-China relations. It’s a broad topic, and it can’t be separated from China’s role in the rest of the world. Through the Belt and Road Initiative, China has embarked on a series of infrastructure projects in the rest of the world to complement existing trade ties. Latin America is one of the regions where China invests; because of its proximity to the US, the Trump Administration has taken a hard line against these projects.

China’s Economic Relationship with Latin America

During the early 2000s, economic growth in China contributed to increasing demand for raw materials. The resulting commodities boom fueled economic growth in Latin America, as Brazil exported soy, Chile exported copper, and Peru exported minerals to the largest emerging market in the world.

Economic integration between Latin America and China has since expanded, presenting opportunities and risks. Investors shifted from extractive industries to a range of services, permitting Latin American economies to diversify. Chinese loans, totaling over $141 billion since 2005, have permitted Latin American governments to fund expenditures with few strings attached, but with little regard for the long-term consequences of deficits.

During the Bush and Obama administrations, the United States took on the role of constructive critic regarding Chinese engagement. They advocated for transparency, environmental regulation, responsible spending, and anti-corruption standards. They held seven bilateral consultations with China regarding Latin America.

The Trump administration has criticized Chinese engagement without offering a better option. The 2017 National Security Strategy identified China as a strategic competitor, accusing it “pulling the region into its orbit through state-led investment and loans.” Bilateral meetings were suspended, and Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo have engaged in rhetoric about China’s predatory intentions. Rather than evaluating Chinese engagement deal-by-deal through private meetings, the US has publically rejected all Chinese investment in Latin America. At the same time, the US has threatened tariffs on Mexico and withdrawn aid from Central America. If China really wanted to bring the region into its orbit, the announcements couldn’t have come at a better time.

A Better Approach

The US used to be a credible observer of Chinese investment in Latin America, warning against specific deals that would harm Latin American countries. The Bush and Obama-era bilateral meetings were a venue for this constructive criticism.

A future administration should return to bilateral consultations regarding Latin America, encourage positive-sum deals while pressing for standards regarding corruption and the environment, and provide alternatives to Chinese financing. The Inter-American Foundation and USAID are key avenues for this funding, but international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank can provide another source.

Each Chinese loan or investment offer comes with opportunities and risks for Latin America. By evaluating both sides and presenting more attractive options, the US can continue to engage in competition with China while also benefiting Latin America.

Stray Observations

  1. The highlight of this weekend was a party in Northern Virginia for current students, alumni, and supporters of the AGS Program. It was a lot of fun to catch up with friends and meet new people. If I end up in DC after graduation, it will be a great community to get involved in!


Week 2: Thinking About the Long Term

June 18, 2019

My second week at the OAS was an exciting one, as I got to spend more time with the other interns, attend two events at think tanks, and begin to work on a report on the Belize-Guatemala territorial dispute.

The two panels stood out. While they focused on issues specific to Latin America, they both yielded lessons that we can, and should, apply to other issues around the world.

The first event, on the implementation of peace accords in Colombia, took place at the University of Notre Dame’s office in DC. Notre Dame has an excellent peace and conflict studies program, and one of their contributions is called the Peace Accords Matrix. The matrix compiles information about 34 different peace accords, comparing how well they’ve been carried out and offering recommendations on how governments and other actors can improve. The panel this week gathered academics, think tank fellows, and practitioners to assess how Colombia was doing when it came to implementation.

The second event, focused on migration and development in Central America, also took place at the Notre Dame office. Although migration from the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador), has been making headlines in the US over the last year, it’s nothing new. Violent crime, poverty, and poor governance drive emigration, and people will continue to leave their countries until we address those causes.

I drew two key takeaways.

Short-term “fixes” can cause long-term damage. As Michael Camilleri, one of the Central America panelists, pointed out, politicians in the US face strong pressure from constituents to reduce migration now. The Trump administration has responded to that pressure with deep cuts to Central American aid and threats of tariffs against Mexico. The approach is an attempt to coerce the governments of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador into blocking migrants on their way toward the US border. Even if Trump succeeds in decreasing migration in the short term, however, in the long run these measures will likely increase poverty and violence in the region.

Long-term solutions can appear to be short-term mistakes. The Colombian peace accord is a comprehensive document, addressing immediate concerns such as disarmament and demobilization, but also including longer term stipulations on rural reform and transitional justice. One of these stipulations involves reducing rural communities’ reliance on planting coca, a crop used in the production of cocaine. The peace accords call for the government to subsidize coca-growing families who switch to legal crops, a policy called voluntary substitution.

In the short term after the peace accords, cultivation of coca plants has increased in areas formerly controlled by the FARC guerrilla group. President Trump has responded by pushing the Colombian government to take more extreme measures against coca fields. One such measure, aerial spraying, is prone to destroying legal crops as well, eliminating a key source of revenue for families in the post-conflict zone. Raising even more cause for concern, researchers at the University of the Andes found a link between the tactic and increased visits to the doctor regarding respiratory illness and skin damage, as well as an increased incidence of miscarriages. Panelist Adam Isacson argues that rather than viewing the short-term increase in coca cultivation as a failure of the peace deal, we should view it as a reason to increase state presence in the region and fully implement the accords.

Stray Observations

  1. There’s no shortage of museums in DC with free admission! This weekend I went to some of them with a group of friends from the OAS. It was my first time in the Renwick Gallery, and I loved it!
  2. The link between migration and development is complicated. Some researchers, such as Michael Clemens at the Center for Global Development, have counterintuitively argued that development can temporarily increase migration rates by providing greater access to resources to leave an underdeveloped country in the first place. As development policies take effect and home conditions improve, migration drops back down. This trend, called the “migration hump” or “mobility transition,” may be the topic of a future blog entry.


Week 1: Looking Back, Looking Forward

June 12, 2019

Even after spending last summer at an internship in DC, each time I come up here I’m struck by how much there is to do! I moved into my room last Sunday, and in just one week I’ve attended three panels at think tanks, two events with Duke in DC, and a jazz concert. I also spent a half-day at the DC Pride Parade with friends from the OAS, and I started my full-time internship on Thursday. My week’s been packed, but I couldn’t be happier with how I’ve filled it and the people I’m spending it with.

The highlight was starting my position at the Organization of American States. On Thursday morning I gathered with about 70 other interns in a conference room for orientation and a chance to meet each other. A few of the interns are from Canada and the US, but the vast majority come from Latin America. The mix of interns from all over the Americas has given me an opportunity to practice my Spanish, help some of them practice their English, and even begin to pick up some Brazilian Portuguese!

Looking Back

Three years ago, I would have never guessed that I’d be doing an internship at the OAS. I started at Duke with a broad interest in international relations. At the time, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to specialize in one region or topic. During my sophomore year, I started to write a blog on the Colombian Peace Accords through the Global Human Rights Scholars Program at Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics. The peace process and the FARC guerrilla group were top google search terms for a short time in October 2016, when the agreement was put to Colombian voters in a referendum and then-President Juan Manuel Santos won that year’s Nobel Peace Prize. After the referendum, however, global attention shifted away just as the most difficult part of the process—implementation—was about to begin. Through my blog, I realized that I wanted to continue to follow the process, even after most people had begun to focus to other global hot spots.

I spent the summer after sophomore year continuing to follow the accords and their implementation as the Colombia Program Intern at the Latin America Working Group, a human rights advocacy NGO. At LAWG, I appreciated the tight-knit team, and I got a better sense of the differences among advocacy groups, think tanks, academia, multilateral organizations, and government.

During the fall semester of my junior year, I studied in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The classes, taught in Spanish at Argentine universities, had a regional focus, and I learned a lot by writing about Latin American presidents and foreign policy. Spending time with friends from Argentina and other countries in Latin America and Europe, I learned as much outside of the classroom as I did in my courses. As I sat in the conference room for orientation at OAS, the chance to meet interns from all over the Americas took me back to the time I spent in Argentina.

Looking Forward

Following orientation, we split up to go to each of our departments. The OAS is a sprawling organization, taking up three separate buildings in DC, not to mention dozens of regional offices across the hemisphere. Many of the interns are assigned to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Others work on issues of security, development, administration, and finance.

I’m working with the Department of Sustainable Democracy and Special Missions. Most of my work will be centered around the OAS’ Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH, for its initials in Spanish) and the Belize-Guatemala Process, which has made great strides in the last few years to address a 160-year-old border dispute between the two countries. Having studied some of these issues at college and following them in the news, I’m excited to be working on them firsthand.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll begin to work on projects related to the Belize/Guatemala Process and MACCIH, and I’ll have an opportunity to explain the politics surrounding them in this blog. I’ll also talk about what I’ve been up to in DC with friends from Duke and the OAS internship program. Although I’m only a few days into my time as OAS, I’m excited for all that I’ll be doing this summer.

Stray Observations

  1. I love hearing all the different accents among the Spanish-speaking interns at the OAS. I got used to the Argentine accent during my semester in Buenos Aires, but every country (and even each region within a country) has its own way of speaking and sometimes its own vocabulary. The best (and funniest) summary of this is a video by Venezuelan-American comedian Joanna Hausmann.
  2. DC has tons of events at think tanks, focusing on everything from US-Iran relations to domestic infrastructure spending. Since most of the attendees are familiar with the field, panelists can more easily go into the weeds on niche topics—something that I’ve appreciated during the events I went to last week.
  3. The AV Club, a TV and film review site, includes a section called “stray observations” at the end of each article with a few notes that didn’t fit into the body of the review. I like their format, so I’ve added a similar section here.