Here is a transcript from the remarks of Rep. George Miller (D-California), the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, at the end of a February 12 hearing on labor rights in Colombia.
It was referred to a number of times here about the beauty of the country of Colombia. And, for those who have visited Colombia, it would not take more than a few seconds to realize why people say that, because of the spectacular nature of the country and its natural assets. And of course, when you meet its people. But that is not a substitute for a serious inquiry into human rights.
I can remember standing at the American embassy, with the American ambassador, at the height of the violence in Chile, and him telling me that this is a beautiful country, and that I should really go to Valparaiso and enjoy the beaches, and see the people who use the beaches, and I should go shopping and enjoy the people who are shopping, and that my concerns were misplaced, because it’s such a beautiful country. My concerns weren’t misplaced. It took almost 30 years, but we brought Mr. Pinochet to justice.
And the world now knows the history of what was taking place while people were suggesting it’s a beautiful country. I had the same treatment from then-President D’Aubuisson, that I should go walk and enjoy the rivers of Salvador, because it’s such a beautiful place. And we all know the history of violence by that government against its people.
[Note: Roberto D'Aubuisson, a far-right sponsor of death squads and founder of El Salvador's ARENA party, was never actually president.]
Rep. Miller’s words inspired the following response yesterday from Colombia’s vice-president, Francisco Santos, in an interview on Colombia’s RCN radio network. [mp3 version here]
RCN Questioner: What do you think about what we just heard? A U.S. Congressman, the president for these issues in the House, George Miller, comparing Colombia’s situation to El Salvador during the time of that criminal, Roberto D’Aubuisson, or with Pinochet’s Chile?
Santos: It seems to me that this statement indicates Mr. Miller’s lack of objectivity, of his ideologization of his entire perception of Colombia, ideologization and radical politicization of Colombia’s reality, which makes him, well, an enemy of Colombia, someone who doesn’t have Colombia’s interests in mind, only his personal and ideological interests.
It seems to me that it [Mr. Miller's statement] is part of a smear campaign against Colombia, in which the political debate going on here has moved overseas.
RCN Questioners: Of course, yes. Vicepresident, yes sir, of course yes. Sir, it’s worrisome that this person, Mr. George Miller, is quite close to Nancy Pelosi. So one might feel that bills like the Free Trade Agreement still have many enemies, at least in the ideological sense in the United States, and that the issue, instead of becoming clearer, is more tangled.
Santos: This is a congressman who only has a personal vendetta, an ideological vendetta, that has nothing to do with, with…
RCN Questioner, interrupting: Reality.
Leave aside for a moment the vice-president’s questioners’ extreme deference and lack of objectivity. (One understands why Colombians refer to RCN as “Radio Casa de NariÃ±o,” using the name of Colombia’s presidential palace.)
Rep. Miller’s point was that he was tired of discussing a country’s natural beauty or good shopping when he wanted to have a conversation about human rights. He was not comparing Colombia to Pinochet’s Chile or 1980s El Salvador – though given the hundreds of unpunished extrajudicial executions the Army has committed in the past few years alone, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch.
In no way should his words make George Miller an “enemy of Colombia.” But the Vice President’s use of this terribly unfortunate term is a chilling example of how today’s Colombian government regards any expression of dissent.
This is not an accidental gaffe on the Vice President’s part, either. He had similar words for a delegation of human rights leaders who visited Washington this week. He told Colombia’s “La W” radio network the following, about an hour before the delegates spoke at an event on Capitol Hill hosted by U.S. Rep. Sam Farr (D-California).
Today in the United States … there is a Sam Farr hearing … where the sad thing about all this is that Colombian politics have moved to international scenarios, and the hatred of the President, the ill will toward the President on the part of some sectors, has now taken on the strategy of going everywhere to trash the country. It makes one feel pain for the fatherland, it hurts one that this strategy is used to try to attack Colombia, to attack the President.
Last week, the Colombian government sent three ministers and other high officials to Washington to ask for a continuation of aid, and to present their version of the country’s current security and human rights situations. However, when Colombian experts and activists with different information travel here – whether to testify at hearings or as guests of non-governmental colleagues – the Colombian government’s highest officials trash them viciously in the national media, while severely mischaracterizing what they have to say. And now, this trashing even extends to members of the U.S. Congress.
We note as well that one of those who testified in Rep. Miller’s February 12 hearing has received serious threats from the Black Eagles paramilitary group. Here in Washington, these threats and Vice President Santos’ careless words send a message loud enough to drown out all official public-relations campaigns’ images of natural beauty and improved security.