Irving Tragen, 100 Years of Development

Podcast cover for Borderlines Episode 9 – Irving Tragen, 100 Years of Development

Episode #9 of Borderlines features legendary U.S. Foreign Service Officer and Latin American expert Irving G. Tragen on the occasion of his 100th birthday, in conversation about his life and legacy with Berkeley Law’s newly-named Tragen Professor of Law, Dr. Katerina Linos. 

Drawing on more than 55 years of distinguished public service in Inter-American Affairs, Irving Tragen recounts his fascinating journey as a law student during WWII overcoming hearing impairment, through his frontline State Department diplomatic assignments as a witness to and influencer of labor laws, labor relations, and economic development across the Western Hemisphere. Mr. Tragen was an integral part of President John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress initiative, as well as the Organization of American States’ Economic Development Program efforts to tackle debt and foreign trade crises, secure border area infrastructure projects, and combat international drug trafficking. Listeners will benefit from Mr. Tragen’s brilliant mini-briefings on nations from Chile to Costa Rica, and enjoy insider stories from history’s hotspots.

Timely lessons and timeless advice about investing in workforce education, and bringing respect to the table so as to successfully help people help themselves, are further highlights of this remarkable interview. Learn why Berkeley Law bestowed the Citation Award, its highest honor, on Mr. Tragen in 2010 for his exceptional leadership skills, character, and lifetime of achievements.

Borderlines from Berkeley Law is a podcast about global problems in a world fragmented by national borders. Our host is Katerina Linos, Tragen Professor of International Law and co-director of the Miller Institute for Global Challenges and the Law. In each episode of Borderlines, Professor Linos invites experts to discuss cutting edge issues in international law.

Episode Transcript

Katerina Linos (00:00:02):

I’m Katerina Linos, the host of Borderlines, the Irving and Eleanor Tragen Professor of Comparative and International Law at UC Berkeley. Today, I have the distinct pleasure to interview Mr. Irving Tragen himself. A California native, Irving Tragen received both his bachelors and his law degree from UC Berkeley, along the way, meeting his beloved wife, Ele at the International House here on campus. They married in 1947 and Irving and Ele immediately embarked on the first leg of what would become a lifelong journey across Mexico, El Salvador, Chile, Venezuela, Bolivia, Panama, Guatemala, and the Caribbean. Irving is a distinguished diplomat with 55 years of service in Inter-American Affairs. Join us today as we discuss his work on diplomatic development and drug trafficking control assignments over the decades. I want to start very locally.

Katerina Linos (00:01:03):

I want to start with the building here at Berkeley Law and the building across the street, I-House, where Irving is staying and where he met his wife Ele many decades ago. I had the opportunity to look a little bit at your student note, on interracial marriage. What do you remember the most from those days here at Berkeley Law? What were the conversations focused on?

Irving Tragen (00:01:33):

Remember, this was a period during World War II. We were a class of 14 and unlike most classes, you had to come prepared every day because you were likely to be called on, and you wanted to avoid the rancor of the professors when you said some stupidity. We had a very wonderful professor of criminal law called Captain Kidd. Captain Kidd’s response would be, “You are an enemy to your client when you gave the wrong answer.” I came to Berkeley reading lips. I had lost the bulk of my hearing when I was about 15 to 18 years old. In law school reading lips is a very unique experience. We spent, I would say, 80% of our working life at the law school and in the law library. Unlike today, where you have the computer and you have resources that are technologically more efficient, all of our work was done by reading the lawsuit, the law cases and a lot of times trying to discuss together the real intent of the justices.

Irving Tragen (00:03:09):

Now, our class had 14 people. We had more professors than we had students, and the 14 of us were all 4-F, except for two women. It’s so wonderful for me to see today, the balance between female and male. We’ve gone from the time when women were not expected to do things like the law to a time where women are leaders in our thinking about law. One of the most interesting experiences we had was in constitutional law. Our professor was D.O. McGovney, the man who had invented the unilateral contract and also, was a well-respected constitutional lawyer. In our first year, the class was running already 45 minutes over and the secretary to the Dean came in and he said, “Justice Stone is on the line. He wants to consult you.” D.O. McGovney said, “Tell him, I will call him when I’m finished with my class.”

Irving Tragen (00:04:29):

That always impressed me. His choosing me to do the legal research for that groundbreaking article on the illegality of enforcing racial covenants is one of the highlights of the time here. I also have to admit, I preferred essays to true and false. The more you know about the law, you know nothing is totally true or totally false. The fact is, I learned in law school how to think. That’s the most critical part of all of education. I find that you have to know the facts and everything you do in law school is based on what are the facts, what indeed happened, why did it happen and how did it happen? That became the fundamental way in which I shaped my career after leaving law school. While I didn’t engage directly in law practice, except for a very brief period, I found myself constantly working from that series of premises in order to try to find solutions to issues.

Katerina Linos (00:06:08):

I want to pick up on exactly that because when I teach international law, I start by saying, “Look, in 1945, we were very excited. We set up the whole system, the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank.” It was a moment of optimism. It was at that moment that you started your career. How did you decide to go and do development work, and how do you remember that first decade?

Irving Tragen (00:06:39):

Coming out of law school, I had great trepidation. The dean called me into his office halfway through my senior year, and he said to me, “As a lip reader, you’re going to end up in the backroom of a law firm, doing research for five years, at which time, they’re going to find a bright young law student whom they can pay less and you’re out on your own. You need a specialty. What is it that you’re primarily interested in?” I told him that I was most interested in the legal relationships between and among countries. I spent a lot of time in political science, but I wasn’t necessarily thinking of international law as we think of it in the public sector. After some thinking, I applied for a fellowship to study comparative corporation law in Chile. I chose Chile because we’re at the end of World War II.

Irving Tragen (00:07:58):

The opportunities in Europe for studying were next to nil. I received a traveling fellowship from the university to study in Chile. I wrote a thesis on comparative corporation law. I came back to the States. I went to New York and I had an offer from a law firm. One of the senior partners said to me, “Do you know what is involved in joining this firm? Do you understand the social responsibilities you’re going to have, the costs involved getting settled in New York?” And I didn’t have the resources. I, unfortunately for me, turned it down. I came back to Berkeley. I worked as a teaching assistant for a semester. Again, with the help of one of the law professors, I got a traveling fellowship to study comparative labor law in Mexico. Interestingly enough, while I was in Chile, I discovered that there were a lot of Chilean corporation lawyers.

Irving Tragen (00:09:19):

For American companies working in Chile, the area of understanding of the labor laws was alien to them. The bulk of their problems were not corporate law. They were labor law. They were relationships with their employees. Toward the end of the time in Chile, I began working on corporation law and looking at the whole body of law of sociedades, of societies, that comes out of civil law. The very basic differences between the systems that had evolved in Northern Europe, particularly in Scandinavia and England, and later in United States with the anarcho-syndicalist approach, which had developed in Southern Europe and in Latin America. That led me to do a good deal of thinking about the differences in the approaches under the two systems in dealing with labor.

Irving Tragen (00:10:39):

I got the fellowship and spent a good deal of time in Mexico. I was fortunate that the man who had written Article 123 of the Mexican Constitution, which is the labor law function, was also at that point, the chief labor judge, and he reluctantly allowed me to join a course, studying at the labor courts. The US Embassy gave me an office because they had no one who understood the substance of labor law. I got a very thorough indoctrination in what labor law in a developing country is all about. It’s about aspirations rather than problem solving. The Mexican labor law was designed for a country that was already developed. In a developing country, your primary problem is the creation of the labor force, the education of the labor force.

Irving Tragen (00:11:59):

The creation of conditions in which medieval concepts of Lady and Lord Bountiful have to be removed the concept of a relationship between an employer and an employee substitutes for it. I found the Mexican labor law on paper to be extremely advanced and in practice, to be a political process. If you went to the labor courts, the worker usually won. If it were a situation in which there were political implications, it was solved politically, not within the court system. If you were a foreign employer, you were at a disadvantage. There was not a sense of equitable application of the law. It made it very difficult to write a document on comparative labor law. We had just passed Taft-Hartley.

Irving Tragen (00:13:07):

The Taft-Hartley concept was collective bargaining. Collective bargaining in Mexico, and most of Latin America was a political process and it depended on to what degree the government felt it was in their interests to solve a particular problem in a particular way. It’s very difficult to put that down on paper, particularly when you’re trying to do something scholarly. The reality is not often scholarly. About nine months later, I found myself being hired by the US Department of Agriculture, because they were opening a program to eradicate foot and mouth disease in Mexico, a terrible threat to the cattle industry. We had an agreement signed by Central America and Mexico, and the US, after the 1929 outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the Southwest, to prohibit the importation of cattle from countries like Argentina.

Irving Tragen (00:14:25):

Unfortunately, the brother of the president bypassed all of the laws, brought in Argentine cattle and the disease spread across central Mexico. The first major US development program turned out to be the Aftosa Program, because not only did you have to go in and slaughter the diseased cattle or those potentially exposed, but you were dealing with an economy that was 20 years from its basic social revolution. Mexico was a classical medieval feudal agricultural economy that had been ruled largely by military dictatorships since the independence of Mexico. In 1910 to ’20, they had their basic social revolution, in which they had deposed the existing aristocracy and created a political monopoly that replaced the old system. In the meantime, you had most of rural agriculture still in a very incipient stage.

Irving Tragen (00:15:57):

They had created collective farms, following the Soviet pattern. They called them ejidos and the ejidos were run politically. My exposure to that process and the interaction of the government program to eradicate foot and mouth disease really opened up my total interest in the process of development. It taught me that development is a very slow process. You can’t do it for people. You have to enable people to do it for themselves. That means a totally different approach to the kind of program that the US was predominantly acquainted with. The Marshall Plan, for example, was a situation in which by providing resources, you reactivated, you awakened the capabilities already existing. The institutions were in place. The trained people were there. They needed the incentive of money and some new ideas and a political motivation to emerge from World War II.

Irving Tragen (00:17:29):

That is totally different from working with the society, that is in the initial stages of evolution. As we all know, medieval societies lacked institutions. You may talk about the guilds in the urban areas, but it was the lord of the manor who made the decisions. There were no rules, other than that. The operation of kings in governance, again was basically on what the king was prepared to offer. The building of institutions — if you analyze Britain and Scandinavia, Germany, France, Southern Europe — is a very slow process and developing capable people is the heart of that process. You don’t do that overnight. You may have a handful of highly trained motivated people, but they can’t do it without institutions that can carry it on.

Irving Tragen (00:18:45):

I learned early on that doing it top down has limitations and you can’t do it from the bottom up, if there’s not a dialogue between the top and the bottom. That means development has to be a long term process because you’re working at different levels. All of it is within the concept of the rule of law. I never felt for one minute that I wasn’t practicing law in some form or another in the development process. I had a short period after Mexico, where I worked opening the offices of the World Health Organization in the Western hemisphere. I became director of personnel at about 27. My problem was I wanted to work on the development side, not merely personnel. I got an offer from the US Department of Labor to go to El Salvador at age 30, to be the advisor to the minister of labor.

Irving Tragen (00:20:01):

As I detailed in my book, Salvador had been a military dictatorship during all of its history and this was a more liberal opening. The minister of labor and I, became very good friends. He was the first minister of labor. The first things he did was to adopt certain ILO codes to become labor law in the country. The first codes dealt with wages and hours. The largest urban employer in the country was a railroad with 1,200 employees. The second largest was a brewery with 300. There couldn’t have been more than 20 other employers with more than 100 people. You passed labor laws and eight hour days, and the railroad, which used to take eight hours from Guatemala to arrive in San Salvador, now took 15 hours and 59 minutes, because of the overtime provisions.

Irving Tragen (00:21:17):

I noted that two thirds of the labor force was made up of seasonal labor. Seasonal labor works six months out of the year, and it moves from Southern Guatemala through Salvador to parts of Honduras and Nicaragua and it’s a very unstable workforce. If you’re talking about development, you’ve got to develop a labor force. You’ve got to develop skills. You’ve got to think in different directions. You don’t want labor laws that work in Sweden, the US or Australia. You want labor laws which help you solve your problems in-country. I said to my wife, the night before I was to talk to the minister, to be sure to be ready to pack because we might not last very long.

Irving Tragen (00:22:17):

I went up. He was very stern and he didn’t want me in the first place. I said to him, “Mr. Minister, the first thing I wanted to say is you don’t need any more labor laws,” and I went on to describe his role, really in serving to integrate labor into a development process and to add into the development process, a role for labor. He sat there and he listened and he reached over and handed me a cup of coffee. We became friends because that’s what he was dealing with. He had little concept of other than this kind of legal framework. He knew that wasn’t working. We became friends for life. They had a labor inspection service. I tried to technify that service. I wrote the manuals.

Irving Tragen (00:23:22):

I worked on training the people. I tried to get them to understand the laws that were on the books, but most importantly, the importance of integrity, of being above all to the employers, not the sources of bribes, but the source of support in dealing with labor issues. We recognized at that point, how limited these possible services could be. We developed a labor statistical program because you can’t design a program unless you understand the labor force and the economy. Then, I wanted to go into worker training and employment services. We were probably too early because it takes so much time to build the institutional framework in which these can develop. I discovered that vocational education teachers are not particularly prone to supporting projects of short term training.

Irving Tragen (00:24:45):

They’re thinking in terms of an educational process of three to four years of creating a different kind of worker. I also discovered early on that apprenticeship doesn’t work and it doesn’t work because the institutional framework isn’t there. In Chile, where they did try apprenticeship, the employers would pay, you start with first your half pay of a journeyman, then three quarters and then full. Through the three quarters, they’d keep them and then they’d fire them. Then, start in again. The concept of apprenticeship has to imbue the employer mind as well as the worker mind. When your concept is, “I’m going to make as much money as I can, using the minimal labor force I can,” that’s different from what grew up in Germany and Scandinavia and certain parts of Europe, where the skills were an end in themselves.

Irving Tragen (00:26:02):

You’re dealing with a totally different environment. What I wanted to do was design a program in which you could take a youngster off the streets from a family in need and teach him one basic part of a skill, let him get employed because he has to support a family and have them then open the opportunity for him to get the second and the third and the fourth over a period of years. I’m talking about short term, 90 to 120 day period because you can’t expect people who have nothing to support a child or somebody for a longer period of time. At that point, the US Department of Labor had had some experience in the East, and the man who came down to El Salvador was very able, he knew what I wanted to do, but the adjustment to the environment was totally unlike anything he had experienced before.

Irving Tragen (00:27:22):

It didn’t work. We tried to get the vocational schools to support, but I didn’t have enough money. This is a place where discreet use of money might have accomplished things. If you’re going to train a labor force from the beginning, you can’t expect to do it through a vocational school system alone. That’ll hit the youngsters, but you’ve got workers like the seasonal workers that you have to lure out of these seasonal workers into other jobs, and you’ve got to give them other skills. Unfortunately, that would’ve taken a decade, and we had only four years. My minister who had the ear of the president became minister of finance and the new minister didn’t have the same influence and we didn’t accomplish what I’d hoped.

Irving Tragen (00:28:27):

It taught me really the need for being careful and patient and working within the framework, but building carefully and building the people upon which the institutions must depend. I went to Chile, and we had a different problem. A country much further along in development, with labor programs and the labor law or labor code that was as imperfect as anyone could imagine because it divided the workforce into blue collar and white collar. If you belong to a blue collar union, you could not belong to a white collar union and unions could form federations within a given industrial area, but they couldn’t form confederations. They couldn’t collect dues. They were dependent on political parties for their existence.

Irving Tragen (00:29:37):

In that setting, I knew that I could not advocate changing the labor code. The Chileans had to do it themselves. I worked out a contract between the ministry of economy and the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. We set up the first graduate school of labor management relations in Latin America, and that was at the University of Chile. Cornell provided the advisor. The University provided the professors. We provided X number of grants every year to study at Cornell, to get their degrees. We started the first intensive series of studies in Chile about the labor force and labor management relations. Because out of that will come their own determination that their laws are inadequate.

Irving Tragen (00:30:49):

Only they can do that. If I were to do it, I was a gringo. If a Chilean begins to think that way, then change will come. The second great program I started was in labor training. We had two contracts, one with the University of Pittsburgh to create the first doctoral in engineering in Latin America. That was with the University of Santa Maria. The government had set up the Technical University in which all technical training, vocational education in the country was concentrated, and the rector of the university and I were in agreement that we needed something that went into the factories, that went down to the people and gave them an opportunity to be trained and to improve on what training they had.

Irving Tragen (00:31:53):

We ran into a political problem with the Technical University. The Communist Party controlled the faculty and they wouldn’t let the program develop. In the other university, it was a total success. The idea once again, of worker training, of creating a system in which everyone had the opportunity for upward mobility seemed to me, the most important ingredient that we could add on the labor side. Everything I’m saying fits within the concept of the application of law, and all of it requires a framework, a legal framework within which you act. Every bit of it requires time, and it requires understanding, and it requires a degree of humility, really. I’m going to add one more experience.

Irving Tragen (00:33:04):

Venezuela was a very interesting experience, as the labor attache in the embassy. Then President Kennedy selected me to be the labor advisor for the Alliance for Progress. I became the director of institutional development, which was the whole of our technical programs under the Alliance. Then, I went to Bolivia as the aid mission director. I went to a country that for me, was particularly interesting. Bolivia had had a social revolution in 1952. I arrived in 1965. We were concerned politically that Bolivia could swerve to the Soviet bloc. We put a lot of resources in Bolivia. Most of it had gone into building infrastructure, roads and dams, and very little into people.

Irving Tragen (00:34:08):

When you’re in that initial stage of the revolution, the people to me are particularly important. I shifted the program from the emphasis on capital development to human development. I did it because we had the World Bank. We had the Inter-American Development Bank. They’re very strong in infrastructure. We have the International Monetary Fund, which provides a great deal of orientation in fiscal policy and monetary policy. I reached the conclusion that we should phase out of those areas. We had been the primary financial source for the government of Bolivia. We had given budget support for years. Whenever they needed money, we provided it. The Ministry of Finance needed to be restructured. We were doing it, not the IMF. The Central Bank operated like a commercial bank.

Irving Tragen (00:35:16):

It understood very little about major lending programs and re-discounting all of the features which you associate with the Central Bank. We couldn’t eliminate it, but I put us on a road to phasing it out. I began to put emphasis on the education system, and it’s particularly interesting because in Bolivia, most of the people learn Spanish as a second language. The first language is either Aymara, in the highlands, or Quechua. Quechua is the basic language in the rest of the country, and to reshape a program from one that had been for Spanish speaking elites, to something that worked with people, again, requires extensive training of teachers. The building of institutions at the base in which the community supports education.

Irving Tragen (00:36:27):

All of this had to be done. I was there for three years and I had the first year under a military government whose orientation was not necessarily what I was hoping to promote. I spent the first year building a relationship with the man who became president and opening dialogues throughout the political system. When we came into the second year, I began to put most of the emphasis on the national community development program. Community development was . . . the focus was identifying young people in villages and communities whom you could begin to work with and educate and have them become the liaison with the communities. Through that liaison, to begin to feed up to the government what the communities wanted, not what the politicos wanted for the communities.

Irving Tragen (00:37:38):

That’s a very involved process. Fortunately, Sarge Shriver agreed to allow the Peace Corps and aid to work together. It was the only experience in the world where he was convinced that aid and Peace Corps were on the same wavelength. We got the program started and community after community, in total distrust would ask for a soccer field. The Peace Corps director and I overruled the objections of technicians. We said, if they want a soccer field, tell them that if they’ll provide the land, level the land, prepare, we’ll provide the nets, the balls, anything they wanted. It takes time to build confidence. The second time, they either ask for water for irrigation — not for human use, but to improve crops, livelihood — or a school.

Irving Tragen (00:38:51):

It takes time for them to accept the person offering, and it takes time for technicians to understand that the people really understand better what they need than the technical people do. It’s an opening and it takes time. My ultimate goal was to create a re-discounting window in the Central Bank that would allow small communities to borrow money for projects, not wait for the legislature to make a decision and put it within a list that you might reach in 10 years. I convinced the president, and I couldn’t convince Washington. The concept of decentralized government of community decision making — they’ve had land reform and the politicians had held it up. What I was proposing was complete the land reform, not with great technical studies, but going out and walking it off and setting up boundaries, and the people do it themselves.

Irving Tragen (00:40:16):

When I presented the idea to the agrarian leaders, the union — they called it the sindicatos agrarios — they were very skeptical. Finally, just before I went to Washington, they called me to a meeting in a neighboring city called Oruro and they said, “We’ll agree to it,” — provided they could elect the treasurer themselves in the community and 65% of the money was guaranteed to stay in the community. That was basically what I’d been talking about, but critically, they had to reach the conclusion that it was to their advantage. Plus if I had . . . if we had made a loan without that agreement, it was very likely it would never have been approved by the unions. They had to feel that it was theirs, not ours. And Washington wouldn’t buy it.

Irving Tragen (00:41:20):

Washington thought property taxes . . . and “it’s too complicated for those poor people” to set up what you’re proposing without a total analysis of the land. It didn’t fit the technical environment, and it was months before that 1968 election. Johnson was a lame duck and all of the people around him were lame ducks. You asked me about development, you’ve got a flavor of it. You asked me about drug trafficking . . . by the way, I think that the imagination in the Alliance For Progress died with Kennedy. We thought beyond the box. We were thinking of ways of doing things differently. After that, we went back into, “This is the way we do things” and we designed them in Washington.

Irving Tragen (00:42:24):

You can’t design them in Washington. It’s hard enough in most countries to design something at the local level for the local level. No two communities are quite alike, and if you don’t understand the communities, it’s very hard to help them. I retired from the Foreign Service in 1980 and the Organization of American States offered me a six month assignment that lasted over 14 years. The first four years, they gave me the assignment of trying to reorganize the Inter-American Technical Cooperation Program. It was at a time, post-Vietnam, when interest in anything Latin American in Washington was zero to start with. They thought the Alliance had been a failure and they didn’t understand that we needed 10 years to build an institutional base upon which the money could be effectively used.

Irving Tragen (00:43:37):

You don’t throw money at problems and expect the money to solve the problems. You’ve got to have all of the pieces in place. I did reorganize the program. We were beginning to take on a different direction, and we were putting a lot of emphasis on cooperative programs between countries and regional training, like development of a substantial area of Bolivia or of Brazil, or that Columbia-Venezuelan border in which so many problems have occurred, we were beginning to put pieces together that made sense. We were beginning to get some funding from the Inter-American Development Bank. I had proposed that in essence, the Inter-American Program become the grant side of the Inter-American Development Bank so that it wasn’t merely a political piece of the OAS, but joined the two together. We were working on that and the secretary general called me to his office.

Irving Tragen (00:44:53):

He said, “I want you to be my advisor on drug trafficking.” I had been deputy ambassador to the OAS, and for several years, we had tried to get a discussion in the OAS of the inter-American drug problem. It had been a process in which we screamed at the Latins that they were the source of the problem because the drugs were grown there. The supply was the dominant factor. The Latins said, “Oh no, it’s the demand in the States. It’s the money that they can make off the drugs. It isn’t our supply. Our suppliers are responding to your demand.” We chased ourselves around the table. You have to attack the problem at both ends. If you do only one, it doesn’t work. The secretary general asked me to be his advisor and he sent me on a mission to Bolivia.

Irving Tragen (00:45:54):

Then, the Organization of American States decided to form what they call a convention, bringing together the leading legal minds in the field from all over the hemisphere to write an international convention. I discovered that was going on in Vienna with the writing of the worldwide [Single] Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Why repeat it? You’re going to have an international body of laws that, adopted by 170 countries, can provide the juridic framework, but how are you going to help the countries adapt and apply them? That was what I proposed. It was adopted in Rio de Janeiro in April of 1985 or ’86. They named me executive secretary of the Inter-American Drug [Abuse Control] Commission that resulted from the approval of the convention. It’s called the Inter-American Agreement.

Irving Tragen (00:47:13):

The first thing I found out was that no two countries had similar laws. How do you apply a convention, with the norms of the convention, if there’s no legal framework in a country like Costa Rica, which we consider to be one of the more stable democratic institutional in the hemisphere? Money laundering was totally alien to their concept because they interpreted it as a political process that would limit the rights of individuals. How do you get countries to recognize that drug trafficking is an international crime? It’s not merely a national crime, and there is no common law country that really recognizes international criminal actions. They’re all country specific. Beginning to talk to judges, whether they’re the Supreme Court or local judges about these concepts — they’re totally new to them.

New Speaker (00:48:26):

They’ve never thought about an international crime. We do have some in the 20th century, but up to that point, they were all country specific. Drug-trafficking, particularly in terms of the movement of drugs, is something that incidentally affects a country. So Honduras would argue that it is not a crime within Honduras to move drugs through the country, to another country, because they aren’t being used in the country. This was probably the most interesting legal experience I’ve had. I used the law in every job I ever worked, but this one was particularly challenging. What I tried to do was to get all of the countries of Latin America to adopt the UN conventions, at least to have a starting base in each of the countries, which they could understand one to the other. The US didn’t particularly like that. The US wanted the laws, but they wanted to enforce bilaterally.

Irving Tragen (00:49:53):

We are very uncomfortable with multilateral legal actions. We’re very comfortable bilaterally. I was trying to create a framework for multilateral action to deal with the problem that affected everyone of the countries in one way or another, whether they were producers, incidents of transit or consumers. The more I studied it, the more complex the issues became because the drug traffickers, they would corrupt an official with a payment in cash the first and second time, and then, they’d pay them in drugs. You had in every country, government officials involved in the initial supplying of drugs to the countries. These are the people I’m working with. In one particular country, the man who was on my governing board, I knew was receiving direct payments from Columbian drug traffickers.

Irving Tragen (00:51:10):

He was the source of the drugs that were going out into the country’s midsection. He was the man who was supposed to be controlling it, and of course, setting Inter-American policy. We spent a lot of time working on a strategy statement. I devised a program to keep us going while we devised a strategy. I wanted the Drug Commission to become a more active agent in organizing the countries to fight drug trafficking. The executives in 1996 decided that its role would be to audit performance by countries, and there’s a very, very important difference in roles.

Katerina Linos (00:52:05):

This is fascinating. You talked about drugs, you talked about corruption, you talked about labor and a little bit about corporate law. Given your in-depth experience, I’m really curious to ask about the biggest successes, the biggest failures. You mentioned some policies that did not succeed because of the timeframe, and in some ways, we see countries like the Northern Triangle countries like Venezuela, that today are going through very difficult periods, and I don’t know if we can say that had to do with —

Irving Tragen (00:52:37):

Well, I think the greatest cause of failure is lack of attention on our part. There is not a mindset in this country that Latin America is important in the long term strategic development of both the United States and world peace. I went to Latin America in 1945 when there were 120 million people living in 20 countries that were emerging from feudalism. We now have 600 million people in countries at various stages of development. Some of them like Costa Rica and Panama, and now the Dominican Republic and Chile, in advanced stages of economic and political development. We have other countries like Argentina, which hasn’t come to grips with its own internal political failures.

Irving Tragen (00:53:43):

We have Brazil, which is a combination of a highly developed south and a very poor almost feudal north. Each country is different. If you’re going to think about them, you’ve got to think about them in policy terms, not in terms of headlines. There has not been a war in Latin America since the soccer war in the 1960s, between Salvador and Honduras. We’ve had border excursions between Ecuador and Peru, but there has not been a war. There’s not been a Latin American country except for Nicaragua and Cuba, which have come out in the Cold War on the other side of the ballot. If you’re thinking in these vast global terms, why is Latin America important? Latin America is important only because of its people and the institutions. It is our back door, and what we need is a long term economic political policy that gives them equal value in terms of US attention.

Irving Tragen (00:55:04):

Not something you look at periodically when there’s a headline. That for me is the number one failure, ever since Kennedy and the Alliance for Progress, which I don’t think was a failure. I think it was a miscalculation. We have had the great success of the Marshall Plan. We thought that we had learned how to bring on development in a short term. We thought Latin America was like Europe. Latin America was 200 years in some countries behind Europe. It required a totally different strategy. In 1963, I thought Kennedy had captured the importance of that difference and was about to make some very fundamental changes in how he wanted the Alliance to evolve, but he was assassinated, and we went back to the old school. There were those who thought of Latin America as our colonies. That just isn’t the right mentality.

Katerina Linos (00:56:14):

To end on an optimistic note, what are some of our big successes? Can we take credit for Costa Rica, Argentina, Brazil or are they totally unrelated to our efforts?

Irving Tragen (00:56:24):

There is a recognition that particularly the attitude toward Mexico has changed fundamentally. I think the opening of trade agreements are important. There is beginning to be a concern about a mature relationship with Columbia. They’re all promising. Central America is going to be a major headache for a whole series of reasons. We dropped the ball in the 60s when there was a real chance of something dynamic, different happening. Above all, we need to look at it with the center pieces of our national interest. I happen not to believe in Metternich and Realpolitik in the Central European sense, but Realpolitik in the sense of what in the 21st century are paramount interests for the long term growth of US and world peace? That requires a different mindset.

Katerina Linos (00:57:38):

The last question: You said the Marshall Plan was a huge success, but it worked in part because Europe was able to absorb huge amounts of money. Now, you said trade agreements are something positive, but the trade agreements, and the investment agreements in particular, are very much in question. What would you do if you had the ear of President Biden and a budget of the size of the Marshall Plan, how would you invest that?

Irving Tragen (00:58:07):

The first thing is I would have to recognize this is not Europe. It is a series of countries with their own identities, their own idiosyncrasies and their own needs. We are faced at this particular time with an aggressive Chinese strategy of helping support the development of infrastructure. If you study the system in which the Chinese have been operating, the strings attached are very substantial. In Central America, we’re going to have to develop a very unique strategy, because we are really focused on four countries: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Nicaragua is currently a personal dictatorship with, quote, “leftist or communist inspiration.” I don’t think Ortega is interested in anything more than Ortega and power. How you dislodge him is going to be a major first step.

Irving Tragen (00:59:29):

Then you’re going to have to think through a strategy that brings those four countries together in a way in which they mutually support each other. That’s what we were trying to do in the early 60s, until the soccer war with the development of the Central American common market. That won’t work anymore. Costa Rica has gone its own way, because of the unique conditions in Costa Rica. It was settled by Galician farmers. They killed off the Indians. They established a more equalitarian society — that isn’t to say there aren’t rich and there aren’t poor, but people own land, and they developed their own spirit and sense — and they have become an effective functioning economic unit.

Irving Tragen (01:00:32):

Panama is in, again, a very different situation. It is a commercial economy. Unlike the rest of Latin America, agriculture never played a major role. It’s been the Canal. The Panamanians have not only demonstrated their capability of operating the Canal, they’ve demonstrated their capability of opening the society, raising living standards and establish functioning democratic systems. And you can go back to the work done in the 50s and 60s, in the education system, the example given by the Panama Canal Corporation in effective and efficient management, the training of the workforce that was done through the canal system — all of that contributes, but basically the Panamanians have taken control of their own country.

Irving Tragen (01:01:36):

This is happening now in the Dominican Republic. Chile is going through the most fascinating experience politically as a functioning democracy, they faced the question of unequal distribution of wealth. They had the uprising in 2020. They now have had a constitutional assembly unlike any other in Latin America. They’re facing now, how do they, as a functioning democracy, minimize the differences between wealth and poverty? Uruguay is another example that is totally alien to most of Latin America. It was settled by Argentine farmers who rebelled against the feudal system. In their covered wagons, their carretas, they crossed into an area that was basically unpopulated and their great leader led them to believe in democratic institutions.

Irving Tragen (01:02:49):

Despite the Tupamaros and the violence, they had tried in the 40s to copy the Swedish system, to install a Swiss-like council of government, instead of a president. It didn’t work and they bankrupted themselves. They pulled themselves back up and they have with their innate sense of individual freedom, created now a functioning efficient government again, and economy. Each country is different. That has to be recognized in the way we deal with the countries, but we have to begin to think of how we do relate on a long term. The Monroe Doctrine, we have said, doesn’t apply anymore. The relationship in the hemisphere has to be built on something called faith and trust in each other.

Irving Tragen (01:03:57):

Each one of these areas is going to require a different tactic, but within some broader strategy. I haven’t seen yet how to do that. I know in the case of Mexico, if you go to the embassy, 24 agencies of the US government have offices in that embassy, which means there is a functioning relationship institutionally between cabinets in the two countries. We have some very critical differences, but the job is to narrow the differences, to seek areas of harmonization. We have a trade agreement, which whether we like it, or the Mexicans, or the Canadians — it has integrated our economies and there’s no pulling them apart. Now, how do you move that into the next stage in Central America?

Irving Tragen (01:05:04):

Because it seems to me that if your strategy has got to be one in which Canada, Mexico, and the US work together in dealing with that area, I’m fundamentally convinced that it is to certainly Mexico’s advantage that we work together. I’m sure that the Canadians would be very pleased to do it. So if I were going to be working on a strategy, I would be using the framework of the Mexico-US-Canadian trade agreement, as the means of working together with particularly Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras at this stage. My great hope is that with the election of a lady president in Honduras, we’re going to get over the predominance of the military. It’s an area that needs great thinking before we start acting.

Irving Tragen (01:06:13):

I think everything I’ve been talking about is an aspect of the law. There is nothing I’ve ever done in my career that hasn’t in some way related to something that I can bring back to the law school.

Katerina Linos (01:06:29):

This all makes total sense to me because I teach European Union law and the idea of how you can move from a trade union to peace, to full integration, to full mobility. There is an optimistic vision there that–

Irving Tragen (01:06:44):

In 1939, no one could have even hoped for anything like that, and yet, there was a vision that came out of the Marshall Plan and the Schuman Plan for the development of initial economic union between Germany and France. If we think we can’t replicate, we can adapt. Everything that happened in Europe was by Europeans with US support. We have to do the same thing in Latin America, and we’re not dealing with primitive countries anymore. We’re dealing with highly sophisticated people. The institutions are beginning to take shape. Venezuela, the problem of the military once again, has probably set them back. In Nicaragua, it’s one-man rule. In Cuba, Fidel created probably the best public health and education system in Latin America.

Irving Tragen (01:07:56):

It’s only a matter of time before the expression of the Cuban people defines changes in what their own structures are going to be. Columbia is fascinating. Each country is fascinating in its own way. That requires detailed attention and high level consideration. I felt that if the chair that you now occupy, if indeed, we can help build networks with the law schools and begin the process of comparing and moderating and looking for ways to harmonize, that dialogue can take a different dimension. We have an opportunity, but we don’t look at it because our primary attention has been military. Those are the things I’ve thought about all of my life. I taught at American University for a couple of years on Latin American labor and social development.

Irving Tragen (01:09:08):

I always started by saying, there is no such thing as Latin America. There is an area of the world in which 20 different countries exist, that we for convenience, call — but if you look at each one, whether it’s the role of the church, the role of the military, the evolution — each one is different. How do you develop policy if you don’t understand?

Katerina Linos (01:09:44):

I hope you enjoyed this inside story about US efforts and US failures to build up infrastructure and fight drug trafficking across the Americas. If you like this episode of Borderlines, you might also want to listen to the episode where I interview Berkeley professor Dick Buxbaum. Dick Buxbaum fled from Nazi Germany as a child, served as a research assistant to Vladimir Nabokov, and defended Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement leaders. So turn to Borderlines to hear of his adventures.