Interview with Joy Olson, Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America
"Power is shifting. The actors who may be able to influence policies in the region might now be in Brazil, in Argentina, or in Mexico, not in the United States.", says Joy Olson, Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Miss Olson, who leads this American non-profit organization seeking to promote human rights, democracy and social and economic justice in the region, also believes that democracy is still a challenge in much of Central America.
Olson, a graduate of Trinity College with a B.A. on Latin American Studies from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), also explains in this interview how her organization, founded in 1974, following the military coup in Chile, really works. She also discusses human rights issues, free trade agreements, and the state of democracy in Latin America.
Martin Iragorri: One of WOLA's main objectives is to shape policy making towards Latin America in the United States. How exactly do you achieve this?
Joy Olson: There are a lot of ways we work to influence policy making. We work directly with Congressional Committees, the different members of Congress interested in Latin America, and also directly with the Administration through the Department of State. We visit them and talk about issues, often bringing colleagues from Latin America. We arrange meetings between people working on specific topics and people in Congress. We work hand in hand with international entities such as the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, the Organization of American States, or the United Nations, and finally, we do a lot of work with the press. We ask them to cover stories that maybe haven't been covered extensively enough by the media.
Could you name one or two cases in which WOLA has had a direct impact in shaping policy making in the region?
In Guatemala, we worked closely with five leading groups in the country who were advocating for the formation of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN-backed body that helps investigate high-profile cases. In that case we pushed for the UN and for the US government to be supportive of the concept.
In Colombia, WOLA has worked with some organizations in the U.S., but many more in Colombia, to bring attention to human rights issues over the past few years. One thing that WOLA was instrumental in was legislation that conditioned the amount of US foreign assistance to Colombia. Human rights conditions were a part of the aid package to Colombia. This was accomplished through a continuous dialog with the Department of State. In periodical round tables every four months, they sit with WOLA, as well as with other human rights advocacy groups, and talk with us about the concerns we have on the human rights front. This is part of the review on whether money can be sent to Colombia or not.
How much does US Policy making really affect Latin American nations?
The influence that the US has in Latin America is less than it used to be, due to the shifting of the power dynamics of the whole hemisphere. This means that the role that an NGO like WOLA plays in the current environment is shifting as well. One of our trade marks has always been to work in close collaboration with counterparts in Latin America. In this stage in which power is shifting it is important that our work and that of our colleagues in the continent is well thought out and developed together, because the actors who may be able to influence policies in a positive direction, unlike in the past, might now be in Brazil, or in Argentina, or in Mexico, not in the United States.
We can see this when dealing with issues such as drug policy, where the changes that are needed can't just happen in the U.S., in Colombia, or in Mexico. It has to be a multinational approach, so we do advocacy in the UN, and we work with a variety of groups, academics, or researchers who are coordinating studies on drug policies in different countries. This year we are working with researchers who are focused on proportionality in sentencing drug charges.
The United States has repeatedly been accused of violating human rights. Do you think this affects the credibility of organizations, such as yours, who fight precisely against this?
It makes our job a lot harder, yes.
On September 28th, a Cuban citizen was executed through lethal injection in Florida. For many people around the world, this is a clear violation of human rights. Do you condemn acts like this just as much as you condemn acts committed in Latin America?
Yes. I think it's a human rights violation, just as people do in Europe, Latin America and in other parts of the world. How ever, WOLA's agenda is directed to foreign policy, so we do not focus on the United States, like say, the American Civil Liberty Union. So even though we condemn these acts as well, what we offer is information on Latin America.
Every Latin American country, with Cuba as the exception, is now a democracy. How do you see democracy in the continent today? Is it strong enough or is there still a risk, as we saw in Honduras, to fall back into dictatorial regimes?
Democracy is always developing. I think this is true in the United States as well as all through out Latin America. Strong, independent government institutions are a central part of it. One of the things we look at is whether or not a country has well functioning police and justice institutions. It is not just about having good elections or a good constitution, but also having the implementation the law.
Latin America is enormous. It varies greatly from country to country. I think it is a challenge in many places, especially in much of Central America and Mexico. It is very hard to lump everybody together, because the countries are so completely different. Even within South America, comparing Bolivia to Brazil would be impossible.
Finally, I would like to ask you three questions about Colombia. On September 7th, the US Department 'certified' that, in general, Colombia respects human rights. What does this 'certification' represent?
If that certification is not made, certain types of assistance are to be withheld. The U.S. has been making these certifications for years now and while I think it is a good opportunity to raise human rights concerns and make them part of the debate between the two countries, Colombia still has enormous challenges in front of it, especially in areas where there are renewed paramilitary groups. There are also indigenous issues, and problems with the return of lands that were stolen over the years.
Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in the continent. What needs to be done in order to change this?
That is the million dollar question. It is not just a problem in Colombia; it is an enormous problem in the U.S., a huge problem in Brazil, and a big problem in Mexico. I think figuring out how to lessen the disparities between the rich and the poor in our hemisphere is the challenge of this century.
We are not economists, so we don't have an economic prescription, but one of the things we are looking at these days is working with colleagues in Latin America who are trying to promote sustainable agriculture for small farmers. This is just one way to address a piece of this issue.
Will the recently signed Free Trade Agreement between these two countries benefit the people of Colombia?
What we have seen with NAFTA and CAFTA, the other two free trade agreements that the U.S. has negotiated in Latin America, is that there are winners and losers. In terms of benefits, when it comes to Colombia, we can see that the losers tend to be medium and small producers. Considering the historic conflicts in Colombia over land and production in certain parts of the country, some people will be the losers from this, and I think they are some of the least able to bear the cost. So I would say medium or small sized producers will not benefit from this agreement.