WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

6 Oct 2021 | Commentary

Colombia’s Peace Accord is Not Weak, It’s Duque Who Insists on Weakening It


In an interview with Colombian newspaper El Espectador, Carolina Jiménez Sandoval, the new president of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), discusses the urgency of fully implementing Colombia’s historic peace accord to address the delicate human rights situation currently affecting the country, as well as the bilateral relationship with the United States following the police abuses that garnered international attention after this year’s mass protests.

WOLA is republishing and translating this interview, originally published by El Espectador, with permission. The interview also addresses the need for a democratic transition in Venezuela; the worrisome situation for migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border; and the impact of climate change and authoritarianism on the region’s human rights situation.

Behind the U.S. House of Representatives’ approval of an initiative that sanctions  Colombia’s riot police the ESMAD (Escuadrón Móvil Anti-Disturbios) for its excessive response to civil protests, and that prohibits the Iván Duque administration from using funds donated by the United States for the aerial fumigation of illicit crops, was the advocacy work of WOLA, an influential human rights organization, with a presence spanning half a century. WOLA’s presidency has just been assumed by Carolina Jiménez Sandoval, the first Latin American woman to hold that position.

Jiménez is a renowned human rights activist who was born in Venezuela, studied in Japan, worked with Open Society Foundation, and the Jesuits. She also became a Mexican citizen as a result of her work for the past seven years as Amnesty International’s Deputy Research Director for the Americas. 

How does WOLA analyze the Colombian human rights situation?

Colombia is at the top of WOLA’s concerns. That for so many years, consecutively, Colombia continues to appear in all global reports—and not only in those of Latin America—as the most dangerous and unsafe country, the most inhumane place to defend the environment, to do community work… it’s unacceptable (…) And the worst thing is that the Duque administration pretends to cover this alarming reality with a finger.

For us, the implementation of the peace agreement, which is five years old, is a priority. Contrary to what President Duque said at the United Nations, we know that the peace agreement signed by Colombia is not a weak agreement, rather he has insisted on weakening it, and those are two very different things. When one looks at the peace agreement, from a historical perspective, the truth is that it is one of the most complete and comprehensive agreements in existence. So, to blame the agreement for being weak is to lack historical perspective. If Duque had had a real desire for implementation, we would be in a different place right now.

For WOLA it has not been a surprise that Duque lacks the political will to implement the agreement, but what does surprise us here in Washington is that he claims success for the achievements and advances of the agreement that have not even depended on his efforts, but rather on the efforts of communities, civil society organizations, friendly governments that have always accompanied this process, as well as the United Nations, which has played such a fundamental role in Colombia.

I hope that the person you elect to be the leader of your country for the next four years will come with a framework to implement the agreement. Because I believe that Colombians want peace. Despite the differences, I have never thought that Colombian society wishes to return to war.

Was WOLA behind Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortéz’s initiative to condition U.S. economic aid to the ESMAD and prohibit the use of glyphosate?

Yes, we supported it. We had a lot of influence.

In terms of human rights, is Latin America better or worse off today than before the pandemic?

It is undeniable that the pandemic has had a very negative impact on the region. The pandemic exacerbated what we already knew. If before we were already the most unequal region in the world, now that structural inequality has been exacerbated with the arrival of COVID-19, with issues such as unequal access to vaccines or how we will recover economically, vulnerable populations, women or domestic violence. The pandemic is a mirror where negative patterns and practices in Latin America are reflected.

And how much has COVID-19 affected WOLA’s work for Latin America?

After four years of the Trump administration, and what we experienced on January 6, there was a great expectation that there was going to be a substantial change in U.S. policy toward Latin America. The change to a Democratic leader was a golden opportunity to reestablish damaged relationships, to form some new ones, and to make sure that U.S. foreign policy was based on democratic values and respect for human rights.

With the pandemic, the opportunities for advocacy and the opportunities to make connections with the administration are obviously more limited. We are doing advocacy in Congress, in the administration, but the pandemic not only limits the ability to interact with key actors, but the administration itself is also tremendously burdened by its own internal problems, some of which are a consequence of the pandemic. So, that window of opportunity to improve relations with Latin America continues to exist, but with an administration that continues to have many, many internal problems.

I notice in your answer a certain disenchantment towards the Biden administration…

Yes, and on several issues. Probably the migration issue is where we feel most disappointed, because Biden’s rhetoric and the promises made in his campaign were precisely to formulate immigration policies respectful of international human rights standards. Clearly today there is a big difference in Biden’s narrative with his predecessor. We no longer have a xenophobe in office, but, in practice, many of the policies we criticized Trump for continue to exist: Title 42 or the situation with Haitians is a demonstration that good intentions are not necessarily practiced when politically there is a controversial issue, such as migration in the face of next year’s elections.

There is also disappointment since we expected an administration that could have made some specific changes to improve the lives of Latin Americans. For example, to remove sanctions in Cuba that could allow remittances to be sent more easily because the island is experiencing a humanitarian crisis. We would also have liked to see a Biden more critical of the repression of the protests in Colombia, his narrative against this repression was not so convincing, so I think expectations were much higher. Now we are facing other realities, but we will continue to do our work.

Why do you say the Biden administration fell short in rejecting police repression of protests in Colombia?

He should have been more resolute against the Duque administration. Obviously politicians calculate what they say based on their interests and not necessarily based on respect for our rights. It worries me to think that, according to their political interests, countries decide which human rights violations are bad and which human rights violations are good. When by legal principles and by standards to which we all commit ourselves, all violations negatively injure the dignity of individuals.

So, to be hard and forceful with some, but soft and complacent with others, puts the issue of political interests above human dignity, and I think it is reprehensible that the Biden administration has been lenient with some and intolerant with others. Because when it comes down to it, the mother of a young man killed by security forces in Cali suffers the same pain and loss as the mother of a young man killed by security forces in Managua or Caracas.

In this case, there are factors such as the drug trafficking problem and the Venezuela issue, where the Biden administration feels that Duque plays a strategic role vis-à-vis Maduro. But I think they made a mistake in their political calculation and will continue to be criticized if they continue with a policy of accommodating silence when what is most needed is noise.


Let’s get into the issue of migration, which is one of the most urgent situations in the region. What steps should the U.S. take to address Haitian and Venezuelan migration, especially?

When the Biden administration began, we were encouraged by the President’s vision to work on addressing the causes of forced migration, in this case from Central America, and he even tasked Vice President Harris herself with the issue. Correctly, this administration understood that migration has complex causes, but that plan faded as reality overtook campaign promises. They did not count on the fact that Haitian migration from South America was going to generate the current situation on the border with Mexico and there was a failure to read the trends because these Haitians are not those who are fleeing the crisis in Haiti, but rather they are Haitians who come from Chile and Brazil basically and who have lost their ability to have a life project there, precisely because of the crisis that has been generated as a result of the pandemic.

The first thing is that there has to be a commitment to manage migratory flows at the border, and as my colleague Adam Isacson says, one hears immigration officials complain about not being able to handle a situation with 14,000 people under a bridge from a logistical point of view, but then one would have to understand how they managed to assemble, from a logistical point of view, 6,000 people in just 12 days and return them to Haiti. The logistical stuff is the easiest thing for the United States to solve.

And these are things you can do without having to reform the entire immigration system. I think there is still a lot to be done to address the dynamics between the officials of agencies posted at the border and migrants and asylum seekers. It is widely known that there are many abuses by these officials. Those abuses are documented and those abusers are still there with their same positions. That photo of the officer on horseback punishing a Haitian migrant will go down in history and in the history of the Biden administration. It is a photo that has a racial tone. There are constant abuses and  good processes of investigation and accountability would probably put an end to many of these abuses. But if there is no political will to make this happen we are hardly going to see an improvement. 

The issue of forced Venezuelan migration is another matter because “the cause” is a country in economic emergency and it is still current, there is no solution in the short or medium term. I believe that there may be humanitarian support that improves the situation of many people, but in many cases migration is the only thing that saves your family and helps you to put bread on the table.

From WOLA’s point of view, what would be the strategy for dealing with Venezuela?

First, we must be aware that Venezuela is a country governed by an authoritarian elite. Therefore, the formula of a violent solution (such as a U.S. military invasion) to solve the crisis would not be effective and would plunge the country into a greater level of violence. It is necessary to bet on a democratic transition. There are negotiations in Mexico now, obviously there is a lot of expectation, but we know that these are slow processes. And here Biden has not been clear either. As the priority issue has been migration and relations with Mexico and Central America, you do not see an administration with such a leading role as Trump had with Venezuela (which in his case was negative). I think there is support from the administration for the Mexican process, and that is a positive aspect, because US support is needed. There has been economic support for the host countries of Venezuelan migrants, which is also positive, but we would like to see a more present administration playing in favor of the reestablishment of democracy.

What issues will you be putting on WOLA’s agenda?

It’s impossible for WOLA not to start thinking about all these emerging issues that have become defining issues for our future generations. Climate change is still being studied at the academic level, but in the years to come it may be the leading cause of forced displacement in the world. We have to understand what it means, how to mitigate it, and how we seek protection systems and laws that respond to that reality. Currently no country gives you refugee status because of a drought. For example, the issue of authoritarianism is one of the main nightmares we are seeing in our region. Situations such as Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba are already well known, but now Brazil, El Salvador, and some concerns in Mexico are also appearing, making us think that the promise of democracy has clearly not been fulfilled and we must reflect with a global view on what is happening and how to stop these authoritarian advances. 

Are we at a juncture where the U.S.-Latin American relationship transcends the migration issue?

Biden cannot have a detached relationship with Latin America. I believe that migration is an entry point where there is domestic political interest, and of course it is an electoral issue, which may affect the political interests of the current administration. However, the United States and Latin America are united by many more things than the immigration issue. Biden has great stakes in a prosperous and democratic Latin America, and we seek to internalize that message in all decision-making bodies in the United States.


This interview was originally published on October 6, 2021 in the Colombian newspaper El Espectador and was translated and republished with permission. See the original article here.