Jun 30

President Barack Obama and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe took a few questions from reporters after their meeting yesterday afternoon. The Washington Post has published the transcript. The record is mixed. A few quick observations.

1. President Obama should have made a clearer public statement of concern about human rights. Colombia’s community of human rights defenders feels increasingly intimidated by President Uribe and other members of his government, who regularly threaten their security with public statements alleging, without proof, that they are tied to guerrillas. They can derive little comfort from President Obama’s statement yesterday that “I commended President Uribe on the progress that has been made in human rights in Colombia and dealing with the killings of labor leaders there.”

Also confusing was President Obama’s reference to “steps that have already been made on issues like extrajudicial killings and illegal surveillance,” since President Uribe frequently makes statements seeking to minimize the extrajudicial killings problem and has said very little about the illegal surveillance carried out by the DAS, his presidential intelligence service.

It was good that President Obama voiced the concern “that it is important that Colombia pursue a path of rule of law and transparency,” but he then nullified the impact by adding, “I know that that is something that President Uribe is committed to doing.”

2. Human rights concerns were probably conveyed more strongly to President Uribe in private. We can infer that from President Uribe’s unprompted declaration that “We are very receptive to receive any advice, any suggestions, on how we are going to fulfill our goal of civil — civil violations of human rights in Colombia; about surveillance.”

3. The message on free trade is not new. Here is what President Obama said:

I have instructed Ambassador Kirk, our United States trade representative, to begin working closely with President Uribe’s team on how we can proceed on a free trade agreement.

There are obvious difficulties involved in the process, and there remains work to do. But I’m confident that ultimately we can strike a deal that is good for the people of Colombia and good for the people of the United States. …

I don’t have a strict timetable, because I’m going to have to consult with Congress, obviously, on this issue. We’ve got a lot on our plates, if you haven’t noticed.

And I think that the burden is not simply on Colombia. I think Colombia has done a lot of excellent work. It is a matter of getting both countries to a place where their legislatures can feel confident that it will be ultimately to the economic benefit of these countries.

I have noted a special concern that is bipartisan and shared both both by this administration and Congress that the human rights issues in Colombia get resolved.

Compare that with the statements of U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk after the Trinidad and Tobago Summit of the Americas more than two months ago, as reported by Reuters, and it’s clear that little has changed.

Kirk told reporters on Monday that Obama “is a great admirer of President Uribe and more significantly the very substantive work that he has done on issue of safety and protecting workers.”

“Having said that, the president has asked me now to follow up and take the lead in meeting with the Colombian ambassadors and others to map out a strategy to identify what remaining issues we have,” Kirk said.

4. The message on re-election was surprising, but welcome. Few observers expected President Obama to express an opinion on President Uribe’s possible pursuit of a third term in office. But his message, while qualified with “every country has to make decisions on their own,” was quite clear: two terms are enough.

We know that our experience in the United States is that two terms works for us and that after eight years usually the American people want a change.

You know, I related to President Uribe the fact that our most revered president, or at least one of our two most revered presidents, George Washington, part of what made him so great was not just being the founder of our country, but also the fact that at a time when he could have stayed president for life, he made a decision that after service he was able to step aside and return to civilian life. And that set a precedent then for the future.

But as I said, each country, I think, has to make these decisions on their own. And I think what’s ultimately most important is that the people feel a sense of legitimacy and ownership, and that this is not something imposed on them from the top, that it’s not — does not involve manipulations of the electorate or, you know, rigging of the electoral process or repression of opposition voices, but that whatever is determined is done in an open, transparent way so that people feel confident that whoever’s in power represents their voices and their interests.

Jun 29

First reports from this afternoon’s Uribe-Obama meeting indicate that:

  • Obama said he hoped that the U.S. and Colombian governments could “strike a deal” to help the free-trade agreement to move forward, although “there are obvious difficulties involved in the process,” particularly unpunished labor killings. This repeats the “we want to move forward but obstacles remain” tone that the Obama administration struck during the Summit of the Americas in April.
  • Obama unexpectedly addressed the re-election issue directly, saying that “two terms work well” in the United States and citing the example of George Washington, who chose to leave after two terms.
Jun 29

From the Presidency’s website, times not provided.

Monday, June 29

  • Meeting with Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (”drug czar”)
  • Meeting with U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk
  • Meeting with Commerce Secretary Gary Locke
  • Lunch with representatives of “think tanks” and political analysts
  • Meeting with President Barack Obama
  • Meeting with Larry Summers, director of the White House National Economic Council
  • Reception and presentation of medal to Tom Shannon, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs

Tuesday, June 30

  • Presentation at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Jun 26


Washington, D.C.,
June 26, 2009

President Obama Must Raise Human Rights Concerns with Colombian President

Opportunity to Show Human Rights are Important for Both U.S. Allies and Adversaries

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s meeting with President Obama on Monday comes at a controversial moment. President Uribe is embroiled in a number of human rights, corruption and abuse of power scandals. The Colombian President is seriously considering amending the constitution to run for a third term in office. Meanwhile, a free trade agreement remains stalled in the U.S. Congress.

“It is crucial that President Obama send the right message, with the right tone. Colombia is a close partner of the United States, which makes it all the more important that we voice concerns about human rights violations and the rule of law,” said Gimena Sánchez Garzoli, senior associate for Colombia, Washington Office on Latin America.

In a scandal even more shocking than Watergate, evidence continues to emerge that for seven years, Mr. Uribe’s presidential intelligence agency (DAS) engaged in illegal wiretaps and surveillance of hundreds of human rights defenders, journalists, labor leaders, opposition politicians, and Supreme Court judges. The presidential agency spied on their families, and even international and U.S.-based human rights organizations. Still worse, DAS agents reportedly sent a bloody doll to a human rights activist, threatening her daughter.

“Wiretapping is just the tip of the iceberg. Far from protecting human rights defenders, the intelligence agency has engaged in ‘intelligence offensives’ that included sending defenders death threats and initiating malicious criminal investigations against them for bogus links to terrorism,” said Andrew Hudson, senior associate, Human Rights First.

Some of the most frequent targets of the DAS spying have been Supreme Court judges charged with investigating widespread allegations of ties between the president’s political allies and drug-funded paramilitary death squads. The so-called “para-politics” scandal has put over 30 percent of Colombia’s Congress, and many governors and mayors, under investigation, on trial, or behind bars. Nearly all of the implicated politicians are members of pro-Uribe parties.

Meanwhile, months after Colombians were shocked by revelations that the army killed dozens of young men in a Bogota slum, government forces continue to murder innocent civilians with tragic frequency. Colombian human rights groups are still documenting new cases of extrajudicial executions and an alarming spike in forced disappearances.

“We now know of more than a thousand cases of innocent civilians killed since 2002. This is a systematic practice shrouded by impunity, as very few of these cases have resulted in convictions. This situation is aggravated by President Uribe’s insistence on downplaying the problem, or even implying that the accusations are a guerrilla strategy,” said Kelly Nicholls, executive director, U.S. Office on Colombia.

President Uribe exacerbates these problems by regularly labeling non-violent human rights activists as terrorists. For example, President Uribe recently spoke on national television about renowned human rights journalist Hollman Morris, saying that his journalism was “deceitful and a glorification of terrorism” and that it “is important to distinguish between friends of terrorists who act as journalists and those who are real journalists.” Such attacks endanger human rights defenders, publicly stigmatize them, unleash the intelligence services against them and result in a surge of death threats.

Colombia continues to be the most dangerous place in the world for labor activists. So far this year, 21 trade unionists have been assassinated. Efforts to bring perpetrators to justice are inadequate as 95% of labor killings remain unpunished.

For these reasons, it is imperative that President Obama, both publicly and privately, convey a strong message on human rights to his Colombian counterpart.

“President Obama should make clear that U.S. support comes with a price: respect for freedom of expression and other human rights. Right now, President Obama is being asked to raise these concerns more strongly with Iran. It is important that close allies hear the same message,” said Lisa Haugaard, Executive Director, Latin America Working Group.

President Uribe’s visit comes at a time when Colombia is awaiting his final word on whether he will run for a third term in May 2010, a step that will require the country to amend its constitution. If he runs and wins, President Uribe will face few checks on executive power, as his chosen political allies will be in control of all judicial and oversight bodies.

“Measures that affect democratic checks and balances or institutional stability, such as re-election, are Colombia’s internal business,” said Adam Isacson, Director of the Colombia Program, the Center for International Policy. “Nonetheless, while in Washington, President Uribe should hear what several U.S. editorials have already expressed: changes to the country’s democratic order can affect U.S. interests, and U.S. – Colombia relations.”


For further information contact:

Suggested questions and further background information

Uribe’s visit offers U.S. journalists an opportunity to ask President Uribe the following questions:

Why are labor union killings still taking place in Colombia?

Colombia continues to be the most dangerous place for labor activists. So far 21 trade unionists were assassinated in 2009 and efforts to bring perpetrators to justice are inadequate. The impunity rate in such cases remains 95%.

Why is the Colombian government undermining freedom of expression?

In a still-unfolding scandal, Colombia’s presidential intelligence agency (DAS) was discovered to be systematically conducting surveillance without warrants, which included tapping the phones and email of hundreds of human rights defenders, journalists, members of the political opposition and Supreme Court judges. More than just wiretapping, the agency was reportedly involved in sending death threats to defenders and fabricating intelligence for use in trumped-up criminal charges. This scandal constitutes a serious assault upon freedom of expression, association and privacy.  In addition, aggressive and unsubstantiated statements by high-level Colombian officials, including President Uribe, continue to undermine the work and safety of human rights defenders, publicly stigmatizing them, unleashing the intelligence services against them and putting their security at risk.

Why is it taking so long to clean up Colombia’s political institutions?

Today, 77 members of the Colombian Congress elected in 2006—more than 30 percent of the legislature—are under investigation, in jail or on trial for links to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitaries, a group considered a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the State Department. During the first part of this decade, the AUC was responsible for three-quarters of conflict-related killings of Colombian civilians. Most of these AUC-linked politicians represent pro-government political parties. Despite steps taken, including an ongoing investigation of President Uribe’s cousin and political ally Mario Uribe, the process is moving slowly.

Why do most extrajudicial execution cases remain in impunity?

Government forces continue to commit extrajudicial executions and other abuses, with the vast majority remaining in impunity. According to the Colombian Attorney-General Human Rights Unit’s own statistics, of the 1,025 cases of alleged extrajudicial killings assigned to the unit from 2002 to April 2009, only 16 have resulted in conviction.  UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston, who conducted a special mission on the issue last week, called the killings “cold-blooded, premeditated murder of innocent civilians for profit” and noted that while the most well-known “killings were undeniably blatant and obscene, my investigation showed that they were but the tip of the iceberg.”

For more information on this troubling crime see the U.S. Office on Colombia’s report, “A State of Impunity in Colombia,” released this week.

Indiscriminate use of force by members of the armed forces also remains a concern, especially in Afro-Colombian and indigenous territories. On May 3rd 2009 a Colombian military helicopter indiscriminately machine-gunned several Afro-Colombian areas in Lopez de Micay, in the southwestern department of Cauca. Among the victims was a thirteen year old boy.

Why is the humanitarian crisis increasing in Colombia?

Over 4 million Colombians have been internally displaced by violence, and an estimated 500,000-750,000 refugees have fled to other countries. Colombia has the largest internally displaced (IDP) population in the world, UNHCR recently reported. According to the Colombian group CODHES, 380,000 people were newly displaced in 2008, an increase of 24% from 2007. IDPs are not Colombia’s only humanitarian problem; a recent UNICEF report notes that landmines are found in 31 out of Colombia’s 32 departments. Colombia has more landmine victims that any other country in the world, one-third of them children.

Jun 12

The White House press secretary’s office today confirmed what the Colombian Presidency told us on Tuesday: that Colombian President Álvaro Uribe will be paying a visit to Washington on June 29, where he will meet with U.S. President Barack Obama. It will be the first private face-to-face meeting between the two presidents since Obama’s inauguration in January.

Here is what the White House statement says, and what it probably means.

President Obama will meet with President Uribe at the White House on Monday, June 29.

That is the Monday of the only week in June or July when Congress is out of session. Most representatives and senators will be out of Washington for the Independence Day “Work Period.” This will limit President Uribe’s congressional agenda.

Colombia is a close ally and partner of the United States, and the President looks forward to discussing a broad range of bilateral and hemispheric issues, including ways to enhance our cooperation on security and development challenges in Colombia and throughout the Americas.

That could mean just about anything. Move on.

The President also looks forward to discussing with President Uribe our economic engagement, including the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement,

The Free Trade Agreement, signed in October 2006, has not been ratified by the U.S. Congress. The agreement is controversial because of Colombia’s severe labor rights problems, among other economic, democracy and human rights concerns. There are several other reasons why Congress is not likely to take it up during 2009:

  • The legislative agenda for the months when Congress is likely to be in session (July, September, October, November) will be taken up by the Obama administration’s ambitious health care and climate change proposals, as well as the 2010 budget. There is little space to debate the Colombia agreement.
  • An “easier-to-pass” trade agreement with Panama is slated to come up for debate first, but even that agreement is awaiting action from Panama on labor and tax law issues.
  • It is very difficult politically to pass a free-trade agreement in the midst of a severe economic recession.
  • The likelihood that Uribe may seek a second re-election casts doubts on the direction of democracy in Colombia. Along with para-politics, “false positives” and the DAS wiretap scandal, this makes the agreement harder to sell in Washington.

Given all of these obstacles, perhaps at least President Uribe will gain some clarity from the White House about the Obama administration’s intentions over the next few months. In recent weeks, the message has been muddled:

  • After the Summit of the Americas in April, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said the administration plans to move forward with the Free Trade Agreement “sooner rather than later,” and that it sought to “identify and work through any outstanding issues we might have so we might move forward with that. And that process will begin immediately.”
  • On the other hand, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke told an audience in late May that “Colombia needs to address the issue of violence against union leaders before the U.S. Congress votes on a free trade agreement.”

and the long-term, institutional consolidation of security gains in Colombia through effective governance,

This appears to be a reference to “Integrated Action,” a series of programs in specific regions that have long been under the control of armed groups. The Integrated Action model intends to combine military operations with an effort to bring the civilian state into ungoverned territories. As mentioned in three recent posts, these programs show some promise, but are largely military so far and face significant coordination problems. They are, however, being viewed as the future of much U.S. aid to Colombia, and the United States has devoted significant amounts of resources to programs in the La Macarena and Montes de María regions.

In the past month, key Colombian government officials responsible for carrying out Integrated Action programs, chiefly the defense minister and the presidential advisor for “Social Action,” have left their posts. Before investing more in the Integrated Action model, the Obama administration may seek to gauge whether the Colombian government will be as committed to these programs in those officials’ absence.

as well as other ways to further strengthen the bilateral relationship.

This language, of course, is too vague to mean much. But it seems apparent that President Uribe’s principal audience for this visit is domestic. The Colombian president hopes to demonstrate that he enjoys a warm relationship with the U.S. president.

But the bilateral relationship and Colombian domestic politics overlap uncomfortably in one critical area: the president’s possible re-election bid. Uncertainty over whether Uribe plans to run again in 2010 will hang palpably over this official visit.

Non-involvement in another country’s electoral processes is a very strong principle, and we should not expect President Obama or any other administration officials to comment publicly on the re-election question. If Uribe decides to run, however, U.S. concern about democratic checks and balances in Colombia will have an undeniably significant impact on the bilateral relationship. It is up to the Obama administration to find a tactful way to communicate that.

Jun 09

This would be the first bilateral meeting between presidents Barack Obama and Álvaro Uribe since Obama was sworn in last January.

According to the Colombian government’s announcement posted a little while ago, “all issues are on the table,” including aid, free trade, counternarcotics and counterterrorism.

Uribe will also be in Providence, Rhode Island on Thursday and Friday to speak at the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. His agenda includes meetings with the new White House “drug czar,” Gil Kerlikowske, and Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D).

Oct 09

Here, from the U.S. embassy website, is an October 1 photo from the recent visit to Colombia of James K. Glassman, the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Glassman (third from left) is in charge of all U.S. government efforts to educate foreign citizens about the United States and to improve our country’s severely flagging image abroad.

Glassman has a long career as a journalist and columnist, and as an expert in conservative think-tank circles. His official bio fails to mention, though, that he authored a bestselling 2000 book that, in hindsight, may have one of the most embarrassing titles ever: “DOW 36,000: The New Strategy for Profiting from the Coming Rise in the Stock Market.” (Used copies are retailing on Amazon.com at one cent.)

With the Dow continuing to fall vertiginously – it’s at about 9,250 this morning – Undersecretary Glassman may wish to spend less time on market prognostication and more time working on the U.S. image in South America.

Sep 19

In commemoration of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s visit to Washington today, here is a collection of some of his some of his more outrageous or bizarre verbal attacks on his country’s human-rights defenders, judges, independent journalists, and political opponents.

  • Every time a security policy to defeat terrorism appears in Colombia, when the terrorists begin to feel weak, they immediately send their spokespeople to talk about human rights. … These human-rights traffickers must take off their masks, appear with their political ideas and drop this cowardice of hiding them behind human rights.” – September 8, 2003, addressing the military high command
  • Many of those who attack the government saying that the president is a paramilitary, basically what they are is enraged that the president attacks the guerrillas. They are not able to say that they defend the guerrillas, and that they are very bothered because the government is fighting them. They should be more authentic, more sincere.” – November 19, 2006
  • [In the early 1990s some demobilized ex-guerrillas] simply took off their camouflage, put on a suit and came to Congress wanting to teach the country about morality. Some have done it well. Others, unfortunately, went from being terrorists in camouflage to terrorists in business suits.” – February 3, 2007
  • I am very worried that the guerrillas’ political friends, who live here constantly posing as political enemies of yankee imperialism, frequently travel to the United States to discredit the Colombian government, for two purposes: the purpose of keeping the Free Trade Agreement from being approved, and the purpose of suspending the aid. … [These are] friends of the guerrillas, politicians who want the guerrillas to triumph in Colombia, but lack the authenticity to call for it openly.” – April 19, 2007
  • You’re biased to the guerrillas and everyone in Colombia thinks that.” – May 2007, addressing Human Rights Watch/Americas director José Miguel Vivanco at a dinner with members of Congress in Washington.
  • Behind this woman is Gonzalo Guillén, who has dedicated his journalistic career to slander and lies.” – October 2007. Uribe responded to a book published by Pablo Escobar’s onetime girlfriend, which alleged that the young Uribe helped Escobar, by attacking Guillén, a reporter for the Miami Herald’s Spanish-language sister paper. Guillén said that he hadn’t even read the book in question.
  • The only thing you do is shield yourself in your rights as a journalist, so that in my case you can wound me with lies. Enough of this cynicism behind your quote-unquote ‘journalistic ethics.’” – October 2007, to Daniel Coronell, a columnist for Colombia’s largest newsmagazine, who has probed questions about the president’s alleged past relations with narcotraffickers and paramilitaries.
  • May they not make the mistake there [in Bogotá] of electing mayors supported by the guerrillas.” – October 2007, before voters went ahead and elected opposition-party member Samuel Moreno, who has no ties whatsoever to guerrillas, to serve as mayor of Bogotá.
  • I have wanted to fight for a safe, prosperous and equitable country. The trap of the power of terrorism in its death agony – to which justices of the Penal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice have lent themselves – does not appear to have a judicial solution.” – June 26, 2008, referring to the Supreme Court’s questioning of the 2004 constitutional amendment that allowed the president to run for a second term, which only passed a congressional committee with the vote of a legislator who was bribed.
  • It is important that the justice system investigate what manipulations of witnesses have been carried out by [opposition legislators] Sen. Piedad Córdoba or Sen. Gustavo Petro. It is very important to do that.” – August 11, 2008, charging that allegations tying the president’s political allies to paramilitary death squads are the product of the political opposition’s manipulation of witnesses.
  • What we have here is … ‘trafficking in witnesses.’ – August 25, 2008, accusing the Supreme Court of trying to build a false case linking him to paramilitary death squads.
Jun 30

John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for the November presidential election, will travel to Cartagena, Colombia on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Why, in the midst of a hotly contested campaign season, might McCain want to leave the country and go to Colombia?

The most likely answer is one word: Florida.

Florida is the biggest “swing state,” as the world saw clearly in 2000. And one of its chief “swing” constituencies are Latino voters.

Many of these Latino voters are people who left their home countries after leftists came to power: Cubans who fled Castro; Venezuelans who flocked to Dade and Broward counties after Chávez was elected; even middle-and-upper-class Colombians who abandoned their country in the late 1990s, when the FARC’s strength made the security situation too precarious.

Needless to say, anybody who fits those descriptions likely adores Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, the polar opposite of Castro and Chávez whose policies have reduced the FARC’s ability to operate in populated areas. So if you’re John McCain, why not spend a couple of days with Uribe to win that voting bloc’s favor?

Plus, Florida is a state that trades heavily with Latin America. In Florida – unlike Ohio or Michigan – support for the Colombia Free Trade Agreement is high. For McCain, visiting Colombia is a sure way to distinguish his position on the FTA from that of Barack Obama, who opposes it, before a Floridian audience.

For Senator McCain, visiting Colombia is a smart electoral move.

His visit also reinforces Álvaro Uribe’s position as one of the last great hopes of the global right wing. In the United States, a mixture of military buildups and free-market orthodoxy has contributed to George Bush’s sub-30% approval rating. But in Colombia, a similar combination has propelled Uribe’s numbers into the stratosphere.

Over the years, Senator McCain’s office has not been particularly responsive to Colombia-focused appeals from organizations like the Center for International Policy. Senator McCain has declined to sign even the most respectfully worded letters and appeals expressing human rights concerns. When we have hosted visits from Colombian human-rights defenders, hostages’ families and others, his staff has never responded positively to meeting requests.

As a result, it makes little sense to recommend that Senator McCain, while in Colombia, express concerns about impunity, threats against human-rights defenders, para-politics, extra-judicial executions or the frustrating failure of counter-drug efforts. Since McCain has scheduled meetings with U.S. business and oil-company executives, his agenda appears to be quite the opposite.

There are, however, a few recommendations within the realm of what Senator McCain might follow. In particular, there are several ways that Senator McCain might send a message that his policy toward Colombia, and Latin America in general, will be more than just – as the Obama camp puts it – “Bush’s third term.”

Here are four.

  • Send a message of solidarity to the FARC’s three U.S. hostages. Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves have been in guerrilla custody, deep in Colombia’s jungles, since February 2003. According to recently freed Colombian hostage Luis Eladio Pérez, who spent more than a year chained with them in 2006-2008, the three men feel abandoned and forgotten by the U.S. government.

According to Pérez, they are avid radio listeners, and they took it hard when President Bush and Secretary of State Rice visited Colombia in 2007 and 2008 and failed to offer any message of support or solidarity. Neither U.S. leader mentioned the men by name, and they only discussed their situation at all in answer to reporters’ questions.

Senator McCain, please do not repeat that error. Mention the three Americans publicly by name, and assure them that they are not forgotten. They will hear you. Continue reading »

Jan 24

They did a good job of keeping it under wraps. We heard nothing about Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Colombia until it was announced on Tuesday. (Not surprisingly, nobody at the U.S. embassy mentioned it to us when we were in Bogotá last week.)

Only yesterday did we see a list of the ten Democratic members of Congress who will be accompanying the Secretary. This made it impossible to prepare any briefing materials or lists of suggested questions to ask.

Those ten members, who will spend about 24 hours in Medellín, are:

  • Eliot Engel (D-Bronx/Westchester, New York), the Chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee;
  • Jane Harman (D-El Segundo/Wilmington, California);
  • Solomon Ortiz (D-Corpus Christi/Brownsville, Texas);
  • Alcee Hastings (D-Ft. Lauderdale/West Palm, Florida);
  • Jim Moran (D-Alexandria/Reston, Virginia);
  • David Scott (D-Jonesboro/Smyrna, Georgia);
  • Rick Larsen (D-Everett/Bellingham, Washington);
  • Melissa Bean (D-Schaumburg, Illinois);
  • Ron Klein (D-Ft. Lauderdale, Florida); and
  • Ed Perlmutter (D-Lakewood, Colorado).

Three of these ten (Bean, Moran and Ortiz) were among the fifteen Democrats who voted for the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005. Two (Moran and Ortiz) have voting records that reflect support for Plan Colombia over the years, while six (Engel, Harman, Hastings, Scott, Larsen and Bean) have tended to vote for amendments to cut military aid and increase economic aid to Colombia. The other two, Klein and Perlmutter, are in their first term.

CIP’s Colombia Program is not an active participant in the Free Trade Agreement debate – our expertise is security and human rights, not economics. (We share Human Rights Watch’s view, however, that the U.S. government should use the pending agreement as “leverage to press Colombia’s government to effectively confront impunity and break the paramilitaries’ power.”)

Beyond the FTA, though, we worry that some of these ten Democrats might come back to Washington with a skewed view of Colombia, and U.S. policy toward Colombia, after their two highly staged days there.

Over the years, we’ve seen trips like these distorting the views that members of Congress hold about Colombia, a country about which they probably don’t think too often. Normally thoughtful members of Congress, prefacing their remarks with “I’ve been to Colombia, I’ve talked to the Colombian people,” go on to declaim about the wonders of Plan Colombia and President Uribe’s hard-line policies.

“I don’t know what you’re going on about, Plan Colombia is working,” they will say to congressional colleagues who have paid longer, unofficial fact-finding visits to less-charming regions of the country. “I think you’re being overly negative.”

We ask the members of Congress in Medellín today: please return to Washington wanting to know more. You’ve only heard half the story. After one day in the Secretary of State’s bubble in Medellín being shown just what they want you to see, you’ve “been to Colombia” as much as a Cancún spring breaker has “been to Mexico.” Your intellectual curiosity should be provoked, not satisfied.

Incidentally, while in Medellín it’s a shame that you won’t be meeting with any of the following people. These uninvited individuals and groups could have given you a much fuller idea of how complex the situation really is in Colombia, and what the true consequences of your aid and trade decisions will be.
Continue reading »

Jun 07

CIP Intern Gareth Smail took good notes at the Capitol Hill press conference hosted this morning by several labor and human rights groups, and attended by five members of Congress (including two first-termers). Here they are:

Uribe’s Return to Washington Puts Focus on Human Rights in Colombia
Press Conference
10:30 AM Thursday, June 07, 2007
Longworth 1116

Congressman Phil Hare (IL-17th)

  • He is a former union leader and would be dead himself if he were Colombian.
  • Uribe has poor labor rights record:
    • Killings and disappearances of leaders are still high with few convictions.
    • Numerous high officials have paramilitary connections and histories of labor rights abuses. Still, Uribe is willing to exonerate them.
  • He will not support FTA unless there is change. Such a deal without progress would be unfair to both American and Colombian workers.

Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (IL-9th)

  • “Come back next year, Mr. Uribe.”
  • Uribe has come back so soon asking for more assistance, but the country shown little improvement.
  • She needs better results before she would support an FTA. Uribe must take concrete steps to stop human rights abuses, union leader assassinations, and political-paramilitary connections.

Continue reading »

Jun 07

This week’s posts have focused on two very important events:
the foreign aid bill in the House, and the U.S. government’s disappointing data about coca-growing.

But there is so much else happening right now, and so little time to write about it, that we’ve been reduced to posting a list of bullet points and hoping to revisit some of them in more detail later. For today at least, we can only apologize for the brevity.

  • President Uribe is in Washington all day today. Here is his schedule. Here is a statement from several NGOs. Here is a piece in today’s Houston Chronicle in which Rep. Sam Farr (D-California), an Appropriations Committee member, warns, “you can wear out your welcome up here.” A Los Angeles Times article adds, “it’s not clear how far Uribe’s forceful personality will take him with the current Congress.” On Friday Uribe will go to New York; at an event there, he will give Bill Clinton something called the “Colombia is Passion” award.
  • Monday’s Wall Street Journal reported on the Colombian government’s extensive, and expensive, hiring of high-powered lobbyists to influence top congressional Democrats. “The team includes the public-relations firm of Burson-Marsteller, headed by former Clinton pollster Mark Penn, who is also a top adviser to Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The firm has set up a campaign-style operation to respond immediately to any critical news about Colombia.”
  • A bipartisan delegation of five House members is back from a weekend trip to Colombia. Their agenda was planned entirely by the U.S. and Colombian governments. They got a big dose of President Uribe, even attending one of his “town hall meetings” in Cali.
  • Uribe’s unilateral release of imprisoned guerrilla leaders is continuing. Rodrigo Granda, the so-called “FARC foreign minister” who Colombian authorities went so far as to abduct from Caracas in late 2004, was released on Monday – yet his statement struck a defiant tone indicating that the FARC’s conditions for releasing hostages have not changed. We still have our fingers crossed. We still hope that the prisoner release is not, in fact, a colossal blunder revealing a basic misunderstanding of both the FARC and the basic tenets of negotiation and conflict resolution. But with every passing day, it is looking more like exactly that.
  • A couple of weeks ago, paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso’s confession to authorities “confirmed what human rights groups and others have long alleged,” as the Washington Post put it. Since then, though, other paramilitary leaders have been clamming up, offering very little information. Central Bolívar Bloc leader Iván Roberto Duque (”Ernesto Báez”) denied any involvement in serious crimes, portraying himself as little more than an AUC ideologist. Élmer Cárdenas Bloc leader Freddy Rendón (”El Alemán”) admitted nothing. Tayrona Bloc leader Hernán Giraldo, one of Colombia’s most powerful drug traffickers, told authorities that he only owns a few “finquitas” (small farms) with which to pay for reparations to victims.

  • Why, asks the prominent human-rights group CODHES, were two U.S. Army officers present at a May 10 Colombian government meeting with internally displaced community leaders in the highly conflictive department of Caquetá? The officers – major and a lieutenant-colonel – “told the displaced population and local authorities that they must understand that “the FARC doesn’t have a war against the police, but against the community” and that they “know about wars because they were in Iraq, where they learned that the strategy of terrorists is to separate the population from the legitimate authorities.” What were they doing there?

  • The Colombian peso has risen more against the dollar this year than any other currency in the world. It has gone from 2,500 to 1,900 pesos to the dollar, and Colombian Treasury officials have been unable to stop it. Some wonder whether this owes to a flood of narco-dollars entering the country. Opposition Senator Gustavo Petro told the Financial Times that “Colombia is in a ‘narco-bubble,’ with growth underpinned by a strong inflow of dollars from drug trafficking.”
  • The Center for American Progress published a thoughtful report on U.S. policy toward Colombia, recommending a turn away from Plan Colombia’s mostly military focus and more assertive advocacy of peace. The report, written by Columbia University conflict-resolution expert Aldo Cívico, is the first time that the CAP – a large and influential “think tank” founded by former Clinton administration officials and other prominent liberals – has issued recommendations about policy toward Colombia.
  • Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights) will honor victims’ movement leader Iván Cepeda with its prestigious Roger Baldwin Liberty Award. “This award recognized the importance of Ivan’s human rights work and that of other Colombian human rights defenders who are unfairly stigmatized by the Colombian government,” they told the Associated Press. Congratulations, Iván!
  • The Bogotá office of a U.S. peace and human rights group, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, was burglarized over the weekend. FOR says it “appears to be a politically motivated attack on its offices,” adding that “The individuals destroyed electronic equipment, including part of a satellite phone stole clothing and cash but took out and did not steal a credit card and the passport of one of the FOR team members.” This is of great concern, as FOR does important, essential work, especially with “peace communities” like San José de Apartadó. They have published an alert with suggested actions.

That was a long list, wasn’t it? If your head isn’t spinning right now from the sheer pace of events, then you’re probably not paying attention!

May 14

It has been over a week now since Colombian President Álvaro Uribe ended his “catasrophic” visit to Washington. Those of us who want to see a new U.S. policy toward Colombia have a few people to thank for helping make our job easier.

First, of course, we must thank President Uribe himself, for so utterly failing to know his audience. In appearances before groups of mostly liberal Democrats, Uribe told a human-rights activist that her claims were part of a terrorist strategy to discredit the army, and called a Human Rights Watch official a “liar” before a roomful of legislators, adding that “in my country, many view you as close to the FARC.”

A piece of friendly advice, Mr. President: even if you actually believe these awful things, it’s probably best not to say them in such venues.

By several accounts, Uribe also hurt himself badly with key Democratic legislators by making them wait more than 20 minutes for him to arrive late for meetings, then failing to answer their questions about paramilitarism and human rights abuse, preferring instead to recite statistics to them.

Continue reading »

May 04

Here is a memo we sent out a few days ago. These questions went mostly unanswered this week.

May 1, 2007
To: Colleagues and legislative staff
From: Adam Isacson, CIP Colombia Program
Re: A visit from Colombian President Álvaro Uribe

You may be meeting this week with the president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe. This memo seeks to prepare you for that in as few pages as possible.

This is a very important visit for Mr. Uribe:

  • He wants Congress to ratify a free-trade agreement that Colombia and the United States signed late last year.
  • He wants a continuation of U.S. aid at its current level of more than $700 million per year, and at its current proportion of 80 percent military and police assistance.
  • He wants to address concerns that officials in his government, and his supporters in Colombia’s Congress, have worked closely with paramilitary groups.

You may have heard that Colombia is safer and more prosperous since Uribe took office in 2002, and that he enjoys a 70-percent approval rating at home. Or maybe you have heard Uribe described as a monster who has tolerated – or even fostered – mass-murdering, drug-trafficking paramilitary groups.

Uribe is not a monster. He does care about governing his country and can claim some key successes. However, he can reasonably be accused of past softness toward paramilitaries, and some of his closest associates face even more serious allegations. And like other popular leaders from the political right (Reagan, Thatcher), his security-focused policies do little for the poorest and most vulnerable, he views human rights as a secondary priority, and his gains are unlikely to be long-lasting.

Even if you don’t intend to ask questions on these ten suggested topics, please look them over. They attempt to provide “the rest of the story,” which you may not hear in your conversation with President Uribe.

Continue reading »

May 03

We’ve published enough analysis of President Uribe’s trip to Washington. Tomorrow we’ll post the “talking points memo” we’ve sent to those who will be meeting with him on the trip.

Instead of more words from CIP, here are a few things said by others yesterday.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont): “I have supported President Uribe for five years. I continue to support him, and I want him to succeed. He has done much good for his country. But that does not mean I agree with everything he says or does. Nor does it mean that, as chairman of the Appropriations panel that provides more than half a billion dollars to Colombia each year, I am going to rubber stamp these funds the way the previous Congress did.”

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts): “We can’t support a [free trade] treaty with these violence statistics [against union leaders]. Speaker Pelosi thinks exactly the same thing, and I hope she says that tomorrow.”

Kenneth Roth, executive director, Human Rights Watch, in response to a letter (PDF) from President Uribe: “Certainly truth should be a consequence of the process. Unfortunately, the Justice and Peace Law that you drafted and pushed through the Colombian Congress pressed for did little to further this goal.”

Protesters outside President Uribe’s appearance at the Center for American Progress: ”¡Asesino! ¡Asesino! ¡Asesino!“ (Murderer!)