Apr 01

In our December report on U.S.-funded counterinsurgency programs in Colombia, we discussed a major threat to these programs’ success: populations’ fear of a “land grab.”

Much hinges on land tenure in places like the Montes de María, a region near the Caribbean coast where USAID has been supporting a Colombian government “Fusion Center” for about a year. This small zone saw some of Colombia’s most intense violence in the early 2000s, when paramilitaries carried out a string of massacres whose names (El Salado, Chengue, Mampuján, Macayepo, and dozens more) remain notorious today.

The paramilitary offensive displaced most of many communities’ populations; nine or ten years later, only a minority have returned to their lands.

These lands are fertile, and with the near-total disappearance of leftist guerrillas from the zone since 2007, the Montes de María have become much less violent. As a result, land prices are skyrocketing, and speculators are looking to buy up the small parcels held by displaced, or recently returned, farmers. According to a March 6 article in Colombia’s Semana magazine:

Some years ago, large investors – the majority from Medellín – arrived in the Montes de María to buy parcels from campesinos who had been displaced and had become indebted to banks. In a town-hall meeting with President Álvaro Uribe in El Carmen de Bolívar, several farmworkers denounced that intermediaries are massively buying land at low prices. The campesinos said that the buyers or middlemen arrive shortly after visits from bill-collectors announcing to them that their lands could be foreclosed upon. Cornered, with no other choice, the campesinos were selling.

At the August 2008 town-hall meeting, President Uribe exhorted the local citizenry, “Don’t sell your land!” Meanwhile Colombia’s Constitutional Court has ruled that loans to landholders who were displaced should be renegotiated or forgiven. But this rarely happens for a variety of reasons, from the lack of necessary paperwork to farmers being unaware of their rights.

In response to this situation, the authorities in Montes de María have temporarily prohibited the sales of thousands of hectares of landholdings. Most of these are small parcels handed out in the 1970s-1990s by Colombia’s normally ineffective land-reform agency. Semana reports:

As an official of the Bolívar departmental government explained, the intention of these restrictions on land sales is to keep land from concentrating in few hands, thus affecting thousands of campesinos’ return after being expelled by paramilitary violence in the zone. And the philosophy of protecting those lands not only has to do with legal buyers; it also seeks to keep illegal groups from obligating campesinos to sell at low prices. Throughout the country about two million hectares are protected for the same purposes.

This “freeze” in land sales has modestly allayed farmers’ fears that the U.S.-funded “Integrated Action” program might pose a threat to their landholdings. Although the stated goal of the U.S.-supported “Fusion Center” is to assist the return of displaced communities, fears of a “land grab” are rife in the Montes de María. For many, the prospect of a stronger state presence in the zone implies the stronger presence of institutions not only tied to the elites who sponsored the paramilitaries 10 years ago, but also tied to the shadowy groups of investors who are buying up land right now. The freeze in sales offers some security from the threat of a “land grab.”

But that freeze may not be in place much longer. At the beginning of March, a judge in El Carmen de Bolívar, one of the biggest municipalities in the Montes de María, set a very troubling precedent. At the request of a group of displaced campesinos who wanted to sell their lands, the judge lifted the “freeze” for 40 landholdings, totaling about 1,000 hectares, so that they could be sold to two Medellín investors from a company called Agropecuaria Tacaloa.

Semana warns:

With the decision of the El Carmen de Bolívar judge comes the possibility of the massive sale of thousands of hectares that until now were protected by the Departmental Committee [for attention to the displaced], and the possibility of these lands ending up in the hands of large businesses or, even worse, warlords, while the idea of these campesinos’ return, or of their reparation as victims, is truncated.

The Montes de María are at risk of witnessing an all-out land grab, at the expense of victims who were forced to flee the region for their lives a decade ago. If that happens, the stated goals of the U.S.-supported “Integrated Action” program will be undermined. Displaced populations will not return, the region will undergo a “reverse land reform,” and the population will be even more distrustful of the state. Last month’s court ruling sets a dangerous precedent.

Feb 11
U.S. oil prices since January 2007, from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In a February 7 piece on AOL’s DailyFinance blog, reporter Vishesh Kumar foresees a drop in world petroleum prices this year. Led by slowing Chinese demand, sluggish U.S. economic growth, and more production in Iraq, Kumar cites analysts who predict that oil prices could slump from their current $70 per barrel (closer to $75 today after U.S. snowstorms) to as low as $50.

Other analysts, particularly those who see a stronger U.S. recovery, aren’t as convinced that oil will drop so steeply. But whether the price drops or stays the same, there is a consensus that world oil markets are currently glutted and the price is unlikely to rise in 2010.

Kumar’s prediction would be a disaster for Venezuela, whose oil-dependent economy is already battered by a deep recession, water and electricity shortages, high inflation and scarcities of several basic foods. President Hugo Chávez is facing economic discontent as the country inches closer to September 26 voting to elect a new National Assembly. The Assembly elected in 2005, in a vote boycotted by all opposition parties, ended up being almost unanimously pro-Chávez, eliminating a critical check on executive power. There will be no boycott this time, so the next Assembly will have far greater opposition-party representation — perhaps even a combined majority if trends continue.

As Venezuela’s economic and political problems mount, President Chávez needs a fresh infusion of cash to keep his revolution going (dipping deeply into government reserves is a poor and risky option). In Venezuela’s undiversified economy, that cash can come from only one source: rising oil revenues.

But since oil prices don’t look like they’re about to rise, and may in fact fall further, we have to conclude that Venezuela’s 2010 outlook is bleak. The period between now and the September elections is going to be tense.

Dec 02

Tomorrow we will be releasing “After Plan Colombia,” a lengthy report on the Colombian government’s U.S.-supported “Integrated Action”  or “CCAI” programs, which appear to constitute the next phase of U.S. support to Colombia.

One of the report’s recommendations is that far more must be done to speed land titling in the zones where these state-building-and-counterinsurgency programs are being carried out. Farmers in the “Integrated Action” zones are still not getting titles to their land, and Colombia’s Agriculture Ministry (whose policies, as recent scandals indicate, favor large landholders) is chiefly to blame.

This was a big issue on our April and July research visits. It was very discouraging yesterday to see this piece by John Otis yesterday on the Global Post website, indicating that even today, months later, not a single land title has been handed out in the La Macarena “Integrated Action” zone. This is stunning.

For the past two years, La Macarena and nearby towns have been the focus of a two-year-old “consolidation plan” that has brought together troops, drug warriors and aid agencies in an effort to drive out the rebels, undermine the cocaine trade and bolster the legal economy.

Alvaro Balcazar, who manages the program, fears that the security patrols, new schools and crop substitution programs may fall short unless local peasants are brought into the legal system.

“Land titling is what’s going to make the difference in whether or not we can consolidate security and the rule of law,” he said.

Yet over the past two years, Balcazar admits that he doesn’t know of a single case in which a small land-holder has been awarded title to his land.

The land issue is critical to the CCAI strategy’s success. If it goes unaddressed, especially in zones where land is being bought up rapidly, it will be a key reason for its failure.

“After Plan Colombia” includes a discussion of the land-tenure issue and the CCAI’s strategy. We will add a link and a summary to the report here tomorrow morning. (We note that the INDEPAZ website in Colombia already has posted an earlier draft, with several typos.) Here are the blog entries that served as a rough draft of our work, which has since been substantially edited.

Oct 09

(This post written in collaboration with CIP Intern Hannah Brodlie.)

“Subsidies to the rich do help reduce inequality:
[former Uribe Agriculture Minister Andrés Felipe] Arias.”
(Photo source and article link)

Update 10/9: Colombia’s Contravía television program broadcast an excellent show about this very topic last night. It has been uploaded to YouTube and is very highly recommended (in Spanish).

Two weeks ago, the Colombian magazine Cambio broke a story about Agro Ingreso Seguro (Secure Agricultural Income), a seemingly benign program run by the country’s Ministry of Agriculture since its inception in 2007. Among the principal objectives of AIS are “to promote productivity and competitiveness, reduce inequality in the country and prepare the agricultural sector to face the challenge of the economy’s internationalization.”

The Uribe government billed Agro Ingreso Seguro as a program providing subsidies for smallholding farmers. However, it appears that many – if not the majority – of the program’s subsidies, particularly those designated for “irrigation and drainage” projects, have in fact gone to a few of the wealthiest landowning families. This is particularly true along Colombia’s Caribbean coast, arguably the part of the country where land distribution is most unequal. The cover story in this week’s Cambio explains how 25 billion pesos (US$13 million) in subsidies went to four rich families in Santa Marta, the capital of Magdalena department.

  • Each project may receive a maximum of 600 million pesos (about US$322,000) in subsidies. However, the Dávila family of Magdalena divided their land, much of it used to grow African oil palm, among individual family members in order to obtain 2.2 billion pesos (US$1.18 million). Juan Manuel Dávila Jimeno did so by renting parcels of his existing land to his wife, children and his girlfriend, a former beauty queen, for small amounts of money.
  • Subsidies totaling 3 billion pesos (US$1.6 million) were given to the family of Alfredo Lacouture Dangond, father of Maria Claudia Lacouture Pinedo, director of the Colombia es Pasión tourism-promotion and public-relations program that organized a promotional display of heart-shaped sculptures all over Washington in September. These 3 billion pesos, notes the Medellín-based Popular Training Institute (IPC), are equal to the assistance the Colombian government provides to 5,779 internally displaced families.
  • The Vives family, which is politically and socially influential in Magdalena department, received more than 13 billion pesos (US$6.9 million) from AIS last year.
  • Another AIS beneficiary – with 194 million pesos (US$100,000) in subsidies – is Ismael Augusto Pantoja, alias “El Negro,” a narcotrafficker requested in extradition by the United States since 2005. Pantoja received his subsidy in January 2008, was arrested in October 2008, and was extradited in September 2009.

The Inter-American Agricultural Cooperation Institute (IICA), an OAS-affiliated body, was contracted by the Agriculture Ministry to select AIS beneficiaries. Daniel Montoya, coordinator of Agro Ingreso Seguro in the the IICA, said that mistakes were made: “Many families obtained those subsidies because there weren’t established prohibitions, but today we see that the policy was badly designed.”

However, it is worth noting that the main link between AIS and the IICA was Carlos Manuel Polo, who in 2007 became head of the IICA “irrigation and drainage” program thanks to personal connections with former Magdalena Congressman Luis Eduardo Vives. The former congressman, whose family has received generous subsidies, was convicted in 2008 for ties to paramilitary leader Rodrigo Tovar (”Jorge 40″) as part of the “para-politics” scandal. Polo told Cambio, “I don’t deny my friendship with Luis Eduardo Vives. … That relationship does not compromise the interests of the Ministry and much less those of the IICA.”

Critics view the revelations as evidence of rampant cronyism, with the Uribe government handing out benefits to its wealthiest supporters from the public treasury. It recalls the 2008 “Carimagua” scandal, in which land set aside for displaced Colombians was instead leased to agribusiness interests. “The Uribe government loves to give public money away to the richest and collect heavy taxes from the weakest,” wrote former minister ex ministro Juan Camilo Restrepo in Medellín’s El Colombiano newspaper. Writing in the Bogotá daily El Espectador, former Central Bank Director Salomón Kalmanovitz added, “In Álvaro Uribe’s two terms, the largest agrarian counter-reform in the nation’s history has been consolidated.”

The AIS revelations are a political blow to Andrés Felipe Arias, the Uribe administration’s minister of Agriculture from 2006 until early this year, who championed the program. Arias, a deeply conservative young politician considered a strong presidential contender if Álvaro Uribe is unable to run, has been so closely identified with the president that Colombians frequently refer to him as “Uribito.” In an opinion piece in Thursday’s El Tiempo, Arias defended himself by arguing that AIS has benefitted 316,000 families in the countryside, 98% of whom are small and medium producers, who have received 88% of the resources. He also contends that AIS has generated 376,000 jobs in the countryside.

Cambio acknowledges that the program has generated employment, although not not as much as ex minister Arias and current Agriculture Minister Andrés Fernandez claim. Others dispute Arias’s claims about the distribution of resources. Rafael Pardo, a former defense minister and leader of the opposition Liberal Party, said that in 2007, the program gave out 114 billion pesos (US$60 million) in subsidies, of which 65 billion (US$34 million) ended up in the hands of only 103 beneficiaries.

Former minister Arias said Thursday that it would be a bad idea to end the AIS program. He justifies that assertion, oddly, by citing the Uribe government’s high poll numbers. “This is what only a few people want. Those who appear very low in the polls. When the polls go well for us, the debate is harder.”

Indalecio Dangond, one of the major beneficiaries of the AIS subsidies, wrote an opinion piece opposite former Agricultural Minister Arias’s in Thursday’s El Tiempo. He contends that “the beneficiaries are not to blame, rather the model of ex minister Andres Felipe Arias, who designed it to reach the rich and not the poor.”

According to Cambio, this year the program has approved subsidies for 100 projects, which include more than 1.57 billion pesos (US$840,000) for Magdalena. This year’s figure is significantly lower than in years past due to the fact that those who received subsidies in 2007 and 2008 could not present again this year. An AIS analyst explained, “they realized that the majority of the resources were remaining in the hands of a few, and that was disgraceful.”

Dec 16

David Murcia Guzmán as a wedding photographer, a business magnate, and a prisoner (photos from Semana).

Imagine that you’re a narcotrafficker – or an associate of narcotraffickers – who needs to launder US$3 million. Why not go to a poor rural area – perhaps a remote coca-growing zone where you already have connections, and where the central government won’t notice you right away.

There, make an amazing offer to the local residents. “Give us your money,” you say, “and you can have it back, with 50% interest, in 6 months.”

Within 6 months or so, you have turned your US$3 million in “dirty” money into US$2 million in “clean” money: the contributions from thousands of grateful campesinos who magically increased their wealth. Minus, of course, the unknown amount you had to pay in bribes and lawyers’ fees to keep investigations into your finances from becoming too zealous. (Many local officials themselves become “investors” too.)

When asked how your business model can possibly work legally, simply explain that it is a “secret formula” like Coca-Cola’s recipe or Google’s search algorithm.

As long as nobody is asking, it’s a “win-win.” Colombia’s narcotraffickers, probably including demobilizing paramilitary leaders, have a trouble-free new way to launder their profits. And by spreading the wealth, you become something of a folk hero among the poor residents of forgotten corners of the country where coca-growing has long seemed like a rational economic choice. People are selling their farms to invest in your scheme. Everyone from churches to charities to soldiers is doing the same.

Eventually, members of the press and some activists become more insistent in their questions about where your money comes from. Your model becomes a bit more complicated, but also easier to access.

Participants can now put their money in prepaid cards, redeemable on purchases of appliances, motorcycles and other goods at super-stores that you’ve opened up throughout the country, including in Bogotá. Six months after spending their money on your heavily marked-up goods, they can get all of their original money back. You’ve basically just given them a free motorcycle, which you bought wholesale, in exchange for laundering enough of your money to pay for a heavily marked-up retail motorcycle.

This, of course, is an approximation of the story of David Murcia Guzmán, who until his arrest a few weeks ago was the 28-year-old head of DMG (his initials), a company founded in Orito, Putumayo in 2003. When he started the company, Murcia was working as a wedding photographer in southern Colombia’s coca heartland. By this year, DMG was one of Colombia’s 500 largest companies, with declared 2007 revenues of nearly $40 million, 60 offices nationwide and a presence in Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela. The skinny, ponytailed Murcia became a jetsetter frequently photographed in the company of models.

Continue reading »

May 20

Page 48 of a 2005 report [PDF] from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime features a remarkable table, reproduced to the right of this paragraph. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)

For each department (province) of Colombia with coca or opium poppy cultivation, the table offers an estimate of how much international donors were planning to spend on alternative development programs between 1999 and 2007.

Between 1999 and 2006, the UNODC tells us [PDF, page 97], the United States funded the aerial herbicide fumigation of 135,265 hectares (334,247 acres) of territory in Guaviare department. This made Guaviare the third-most sprayed of Colombia’s 32 departments.

But when it comes to alternative-development aid, Guaviare is in 21st place on the table at right, with only US$500,000 in assistance between 1999 and 2007. That’s about US$3.50 for every hectare sprayed, one of the lowest proportions in the country.

This all stick, no carrot approach is barely changing. Except for some so far very limited counter-insurgency economic-aid programs discussed below, Guaviare has seen a host of military and counter-narcotics operations, but very little investment in governance.

Unless this changes quickly, it will be a recipe for frustration. U.S. and Colombian government money spent on counter-narcotics and anti-guerrilla offensives will continue to be money wasted.

Colombian government programs

While U.S. assistance in Guaviare continues to be minuscule, some aid to the department’s citizens has begun to flow through the Colombian government’s own budget, particularly that of the Presidency’s powerful “Social Action” agency. While visiting Guaviare in mid-April, I heard principally about three initiatives.

  • Forest-Warden Families (Familias Guardabosques). Under this program, whose duration is only three years, selected families receive about US$265 per month simply to keep their land free of illegal crops. In exchange, the families must participate in training programs, and some get assistance starting sustainable productive projects.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has not supported this program, which critics have argued is an assistentialist, “money for nothing” effort that leaves behind little new capacity for long-term development. Its value as a counter-insurgency effort is likely greater, as it integrates rural citizens into a paid network of people in frequent contact with state representatives, with a strong incentive to report guerrilla activity on the lands they are charged with protecting from deforestation.

The Forest-Warden Families program has mostly ended in Guaviare, after aiding about 1,000 families and 1,000 individuals. Most with whom I discussed the program in Guaviare expressed doubt about its long-term impact.

  • Families in Action (Familias en Acción). U.S. officials have expressed support for this program, a centerpiece of the Uribe government’s social investment strategy. Like the Forest-Warden Families program, Families in Action provides conditional cash subsidies. In this case, poor families with children are paid a monthly stipend to keep them in school (or, if they are below school age, to ensure that they get regular medical check-ups).

This program covers a significant portion of Guaviare’s population – about 6,100 families in a department whose population barely exceeds 100,000 people. Of those families, 3,600 are in the departmental capital municipality, San José del Guaviare.

I heard two critiques of this program. First, it requires even rural recipients to report once a month to the county seat to pick up their subsidies. Given Guaviare’s non-existent road network, this can mean a day or two of travel for some families – and the expenditure of a significant portion of the subsidy on transportation costs. Mayor’s office officials told of lines stretching for blocks on “subsidy day,” with people routinely arriving a day or more in advance to stake out a place in line, and fights breaking out when some are accused of cutting ahead.

Continue reading »

Apr 18

Here is a video featuring Pedro Arenas, the recently elected mayor of San José del Guaviare, Colombia (someone we’ve known for a long time). Here, the mayor gives a tour of a public housing project whose scale dwarfs anything else in this town of 40,000 people.

Begun back in 2004, the project is an unfinished semi-ruin because corrupt authorities made off with the construction funds. Pedro Arenas’ administration is now trying to get the building job finished.

Of course, there is no shortage of government contracts stalled by corruption in Colombia and Latin America (or, for that matter, in the United States). What makes this particular case outrageous, though, was that the intended beneficiaries were 168 of the thousands of internally displaced families who have arrived in San José del Guaviare over the past fifteen years.

Feb 21

Persistent U.S.-supported aerial fumigations in northern Antioquia department, a few hours’ drive from Medellín, have spurred thousands of campesinos to leave their villages and protest in town centers of municipalities like Tarazá and Valdivia.

The Colombian government’s response, so far, has been to send the security forces – including the National Police’s feared anti-disturbance squad (ESMAD) – and to deny requests for meetings with high departmental officials.

The Medellín daily El Colombiano sent a correspondent to the area, and this morning’s report is very much worth a read. Here is a translation.

Cocaleros are not opposed to eradication, only glyphosate

  • The situation was calmer yesterday and the dialogues with authorities continued.
  • In Valdivia, farmworkers await more aid before returning to their farms.
  • In Tarazá they are still waiting for the governor to come and hear them.

By Paula López, special correspondent, Tarazá

“We’re not against the government. We know very well that the logic is to eradicate all of the illegal crops, but we want them to understand us: we aren’t opposed to eradication, what we oppose is that little plane that passes over us every so often, burning out our yuca plants, burning out our pastures, burning our our plaintain and corn plants.”

“Until two years ago, we made our living in the mines. We worked with a tub and a pick, scratching away at the earth to see what we might find, but we tired of that so we began to work as day laborers in the coca fields. Months ago we tired of that and we bought ourselves some cattle and went back to planting pasture and yuca. On November 20, the plane passed over, fumigating, and within two days the yuca plants’ leaves fell off and the pastures turned brown. We had to sell the cows for whatever price we could get, and once again we ended up with nothing.”

This story from an inhabitant of Oco Alto village is repeated over and over again in Tarazá. For four days, 1,500 campesinos have been occupying the municipality’s sports coliseum, asking the government to please listen to their needs.

Yesterday they had hoped to speak with Antioquia’s governor, Luis Alfredo Ramos, but he did not arrive. Their disappointment almost generated another disturbance, like those of Monday night and Tuesday morning, which left 35 people arrested, 15 of them charged with disorderly conduct.

Sickly yuca

When listening to the liders of the 1,500 mobilized people, their arguments sound as coherent as the logic of officials at all levels, who insist on continuing coca eradication.

“What we want is a productive project. I have wanted to plant cacao, but that is expensive and we don’t have anything to start out with. The thing is that our situation is so difficult that we are buying yuca at 1,200 pesos a kilo (about 60 cents), whether it looks healthy or sickly, and buying a single plantain for 500 pesos (about 25 cents). Who could imagine a campesino having to buy his plantains in town?” asked one of the leaders of Oco Medio village.

Continue reading »

Jan 04

The DNA says that the baby is indeed “Emmanuel.” Can we now focus on getting Clara and Consuelo freed, as originally promised?

With most of Latin America’s newsmakers on vacation this week, there is not much else to link to.

  • Bolivia inaugurated a new high military command. The ceremony at least gave the appearance that President Evo Morales enjoys the armed forces’ enthusiastic support.

The outgoing armed-forces chief, Gen. Wilfredo Vargas, said that the military “feels very proud to have had this gratifying opportunity to participate in the transcendental change measures of the government of President Evo Morales,” adding that “the philosophy of the armed forces requires the military institution to be always alert to dissuade, persuade or – if necessary – to repress or annihilate all of the fatherland’s enemies.”

  • Peru’s new defense minister, Antero Flores-Araoz, said that Peru shouldn’t worry about its neighbors’ military purchases, particularly a recent Chilean outlay for a satellite territorial-surveillance system. Peru, he said, should focus on getting its own weapons.
  • Colombia’s National University cites a study claiming that in 2005, 58 percent of rural Colombian households (35 percent urban) had at least one member who goes to bed at night without having eaten.
  • Venezuela registered a rather high inflation rate in 2007: 22.5 percent. Colombia’s 5.7 percent was also higher than expected.
Jul 31

(From Chris Stubbert, a periodic correspondent based in Bogotá, comes this interesting post about a small town in Meta that seems to be getting things right.)

Think of small-town Colombia and you might picture dirt roads, under-developed infrastructure, insecurity, corrupt local politicians, and poor-quality education and healthcare. Yet if you took a look at the April 30th publication of Revista Dinero, you might think again. Castilla la Nueva, located 3 hours from Bogota, in Meta department, is rapidly moving away from that image. With a population of just 8,500, this town in Colombia’s oil country is becoming a model for other towns that rely on a lucrative natural resource.

In 3 years Castilla la Nueva has made progress that normally takes decades in other localities across Colombia. With a computer network “connecting” the town, information has become a key ingredient in the glue keeping this town together. Eighty-five percent of the municipality’s roads are paved, and the main town boasts 100% wireless connectivity to the Internet. The irony, however, is that trying to get there takes a fair amount of local knowledge. Hidden away from the local department capital of Villavicencio, Castilla keeps its charm through its isolation. But with an expanding economy, the town wants to attract foreigners to this part of Colombia.

Another social benefit promoted strongly here is education. All children are provided with at least 2 hours of English classes per day. On entering the town, a billboard exclaims “Welcome to Castilla la Nueva, soon a bilingual community.” Mayor Edgar Fernando Amézquita is intent on providing free transportation for people who wish to take courses in technology or English. Health-care coverage is also 100 percent, claims the mayor’s office.

So how does a town afford this expenditure? 86 percent of Castilla’s budget comes from petroleum revenues, while 7 percent comes from the central government. The rest is collected from the local industries of palm oil, rice, and cattle ranching.

In other oil departments like Arauca, Casanare, and Putumayo, towns have suffered from bad government and mismanagement, not to mention outright theft of oil revenues. By contrast, Castilla has placed in the top 15 strongest towns and cities on the National Planning Department’s “fiscal performance index.”

Where organized crime, paramilitaries or guerrilla groups had beleaguered local communities in the above mentioned departments, Castilla la Nueva has been relatively immune from such influence. Castilla used to be under the influence of Manuel Arroyave’s “Centauros Bloc” of the AUC paramilitaries. Yet many believe that when Arroyave was killed by his own men in 2005, the paramilitaries’ grip was weakened.

Like oil producers Norway and the United Arab Emirates, Castilla la Nueva knows that its black gold is only here temporarily. Once it runs out there must be an economically viable backup for the future. With around 10,000 hectares of palm oil, this community is betting on the bio-diesel industry to continue its identity as an energy producer. It is also betting on creating an educated, technologically savvy generation able to earn a living at home instead of migrating to Bogota.

Is it possible for other small towns in Colombia to learn from Castilla la Nueva’s efforts in education, infrastructure, good government, and health care? Granted, money from oil revenue helps the local budget, but much credit should go to fewer than 10,000 people cooperating and carrying out a long-term plan for a sustainable future. Castilla la Nueva can be a good example for the rest of Colombia.

C.H. Stubbert
Bogotá, Colombia

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 17

Frequent correspondent Chris Stubbert is just back from a visit to Cartagena, and sends this reflection on the stark social contrasts of a city that is both a top vacation destination for wealthy Colombians, and a prinicipal refuge for their internally displaced fellow citizens.

An update from Cartagena

If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin. - Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle (1839), Chapter XXI

Cartagena, a city with a population of around 895,000, is fast becoming the major tourist destination in a country where tourism has had a negative reputation for years. Cartagena is not your typical image of Colombia. There are no Andean mountains here, but a Caribbean coast. The weather is warm, but breezy, and the people – ‘Costeños’ – are distinct from those in other regions of Colombia.

Having just returned from a third visit to Cartagena, I think it’s about time to talk about the incredible social contrasts one finds in this city. Charles Darwin wrote the above quote in 1839, reflecting on slavery in South America, which brought millions of West Africans across the Atlantic from the 16th to 19th century. The legacy of that trade in modern Cartagena is still very strong. The contrasts of rich and poor, black and non-black are evident even when driving from the bus station to the center of the city.

Cartagena is currently constructing the tallest building in Colombia, named ‘La Torre de la Escollera’ at 58 floors. And as the skyline quickly fills with new apartment towers and hotels, and Donald Trump has even put his eye on the Caribbean city, one must wonder who is being left behind? With mayoral elections coming up on October 30th, Colombian media have reported that some mayoral candidates are being supported and funded by narco-traffickers and paramilitary elements, who wish to get a hand in the building contracts expected to be handed out in the coming years.

The Attorney General’s office has made it a ‘top priority’ to investigate the pattern of corruption in the lead up to the election. But Cartagena is and has always been the epicenter of this type of activity.

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