WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
27 Mar 2014 | News

History of WOLA

The inspiration for WOLA began with a brutal military coup.

On September 11, 1973, General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government of Chile. 

Shortly thereafter, WOLA was founded by people who had experience living and working in Latin America and were determined to tell the truth about what was happening – not just in Chile but also in repressive regimes that dominated much of the region throughout the era.

WOLA’s unique mission was to connect policy-makers in Washington with witnesses who had first-hand knowledge of the thousands of deaths, disappearances, cases of torture, and unjust imprisonment that was happening under the dictatorships.

Our role was not to “represent” Latin Americans but to give them access in the United States to those making the policies that had such a profound impact on their lives.  This vital collaboration with partners in the region became the hallmark of WOLA’s work.

Over the decades, the challenges in Latin America have changed.  Democracies have replaced dictatorships.  New issues dominate the news – such as the U.S.-backed war on drugs, the rise of organized crime, increasing rates of violence, and concerns about migration and border security.

WOLA continues to be at the forefront throughout the hemisphere pioneering new approaches to advance human rights and end violence for more just societies in the Americas.

1970s: WOLA stands against dictatorships in South America

  • WOLA sheds light onto the human rights violations taking place in South America during the military dictatorships.
  • WOLA brings a human rights focus to U.S. policy toward the region.
  • WOLA helps draft the landmark Harkin Amendment, prohibiting U.S. military aid to governments that abuse human rights.
  • WOLA facilitates the presentation to the Organization of American States (OAS) of thousands of new cases rising from the repressive regimes in the region.

1980s: WOLA plays key role in ending conflicts in Central America

  • WOLA is an active voice denouncing the death squads and devastation of the civil wars.
  • WOLA issues the first major report documenting human rights abuses by the Nicaraguan Contras in the mid-1980s.
  • WOLA provides essential support for peace accords in El Salvador.

1990s: WOLA supports transitions to democracy

  • WOLA offers advocacy training and helps local communities gain a wider voice in policy-making with government and multilateral agencies. 
  • WOLA plays a critical role helping civil society groups in Central America gain unprecedented input in reconstruction efforts after Hurricane Mitch.
  • WOLA is among the first to warn about the dangers to democracy of the escalating U.S.-backed war on drugs and document the need for alternative approaches.
  • WOLA is a key actor in ending the food and medicine ban to Cuba.
  • WOLA, working with a coalition of organizations in Peru, helps to expose the human rights abuses and corruption of the Fujimori regime.

2000s: WOLA takes on new human rights agendas

  • WOLA helps to found the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), the first organization of its kind, bringing UN support to the creation of an independent agency with special powers to investigate and prosecute organized criminal groups and high profile cases. 
  • WOLA organizes a congressional delegation and helps develop a campaign to investigate and prevent violence against women along the U.S.-Mexican border.
  • WOLA works to shift U.S. aid for Colombia, Mexico, and Central America away from military assistance and toward economic and social development programs. 

WOLA Today: 

WOLA continues to be at the center of every major policy debate about human rights in Latin America. To learn more about WOLA's work and trajectory, see the video below.

Our Impact

WOLA tackles problems that transcend borders and that require both domestic and international solutions. Through strategic collaborations, we partner with courageous people working on social change—advocacy organizations, academics, religious leaders, artists, entrepreneurs, and government officials—and together, we advocate for more just societies in the Americas.

Watch WOLA's 40th Anniversary video to learn even more about our work: