A brief history of "Just the Facts"

Latin America and the Caribbean
The Just the Facts page as it appeared in December 1998 (thanks to the Internet Archive).

We began this project for ourselves. We didn’t even know whether anyone else would find it useful. “Just the Facts” is the name of an eleven-year-old collaboration between the Center for International Policy, the Latin America Working Group Education Fund, and the Washington Office on Latin America. The project carries out citizen oversight and advocacy on the United States’ military relationship with the Western Hemisphere. During the 1980s, CIP, LAWGEF and WOLA were part of the citizen coalition working to limit U.S. military assistance to Central America. We continued to coordinate in the 1990s, as the Cold War wound down in the Americas and military aid to Central America declined rapidly. Despite that decline, we saw many indications that the United States’ relationship with the region’s militaries - many of them still abusive, unaccountable, unreformed institutions - continued to be robust. By the second half of the decade, we were aware of a continued steady flow of arms transfers, exercises, training programs and especially counter-narcotics efforts with the region’s armed forces - not just in Central America, but in nearly every country from Mexico to Argentina. Helicopters going to Colombia. Radar sites being built in Peru. New Special Forces collaboration with Mexico. A constant flow of soldiers and Guardsmen in the region carrying out construction projects. The lifting of a high-tech weapons sales ban to the region. Argentina’s designation as a “major non-NATO ally.” Clearly, a lot was going on and nobody was minding the store. There was a great need for us, as citizen overseers, to gather and present information about how the United States’ military relationship with the region was evolving. But getting a handle on it would not be easy. In 1997, LAWGEF and CIP drew up a proposal to create a publicly available compendium of data about the U.S. military relationship with Latin America. Thanks to a grant from the Ford Foundation, by 1998 what became known as the “Just the Facts” project had put out a book, a country-by-country narrative of U.S. military assistance with accompanying descriptions of the programs that fund it and the laws that govern it. All information was made available on a companion website. In the intervening ten years, the “Just the Facts” project, with support from Ford and, later, the Open Society Institute, has published three books and fourteen smaller publications, while keeping the website up to date. The project has allowed our organizations to monitor and sound alarms about trends like a growing Pentagon role in foreign aid decisionmaking, the difficulty of congressional oversight, the challenges of human-rights conditionality, and shifts in geographical priorities, among others. Over the years, our website has proven to be an inexpensive, efficient way to reach a large number of people in the United States and throughout the region. As we layered on year after year of data, however, coding hundreds of tables by hand, the old website became ever more unwieldy and unscalable. It came to require an ever larger time commitment for the same result. The website was beginning to creak under the weight of more than a decade of data managed with 1990s tools. In October 2007, the Open Society Institute approved a grant for the Center for International Policy to give the “Just the Facts” website a thorough overhaul. Nearly ten months later, as this inaugural blog post can attest, that top-to-bottom re-launch is nearly complete. The new “Just the Facts” is fully database-driven and has a long list of features that would have been prohibitively expensive and impractical even five years ago.

  • Aid amounts are presented either country-by-country or program-by-program, all in sortable tables that can be restricted by year, subregion and type of funding program. Printer-friendly versions are available, and we will soon add spreadsheet (CSV) exports too. Many individual aid numbers are clickable, yielding even more detail about what sort of aid is being given.
  • Training and arms sales work similarly, and each section offers a detailed search form allowing users to pull out specific data (such as all arms sales to Colombia since 2003 with the word "helicopter" in them, for instance).
  • Deployments are still under construction - we've only got counter-drug operations and Humanitarian Civic Assistance deployments so far. The goal is to have bases, exercises, Special Forces deployments and Security Assistance Organizations complete by late September or early October.
  • Links to news coverage. You'll notice that almost everything on these links pages is clickable - clicking on "Argentina" or "Civil-Military Relations" gives you links to every relevant news article we've seen about Argentina lately, or every article we've tagged "Civil-Military Relations." You can also search for news (but for copyright reasons, we can't share the text of articles), and browse a list of news outlets.
  • You can read our own publications since 1998. Also, read what others are saying about security in the Americas, whether in the U.S. Government (including official reports), the U.S. Congress, other governments or NGOs.
  • Any legislation that can be construed as relevant to security in the Americas is reproduced here. We update this page at least once a week, so it should reflect bill status quite closely. This section too is searchable.
  • A calendar presents upcoming public events, hearings, official travel, reporting deadlines and similar date-specific data.
  • An image gallery presents public-domain photos depicting U.S. engagement with Latin America, taken mostly from official U.S. government online sources. Images too are tagged and searchable.
  • And of course, we've added something that the original "Just the Facts" sorely lacked: a search form that actually yields meaningful results. (See the top right corner of this and every other non-printer-friendly page.)

A few pieces of data remain to be added, mainly exercises, bases and deployments. Soon we will add a section highlighting reports and organizations laying out recommendations for what an alternative U.S. policy toward the region might look like. A professional design facelift awaits - the site's current layout (as of July 2008) reflects the fact that we are Latin Americanists, not designers. We want to add a lot more multimedia and interactive features. But the new site is already fully functional, and we're pleased to say that it is catching on: the number of unique visitors we've had over the past month (1,341 according to Google Analytics) grew by more than 50 percent over the previous month (869). In the coming year, we hope to use the “Just the Facts” website to highlight several troubling trends, high-priority issues, and promising alternatives. We hope that you'll join us and visit often.