Jan 31

After more than three years in Colombia, Michael Frühling is leaving. The head of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ field office in Bogotá is off to Geneva, where he will become the High Commissioner’s chief of “Policy, Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation.”

Frühling will be missed. Without ever being accused of “combative” or “outspoken” behavior, he became known for firmly but diplomatically calling “foul” in the face of the Uribe government’s frequent human rights lapses.

In October 2002, Frühling replaced Anders Kompass, another very competent Swedish UN official, in a very tough job. The Bogotá field office, founded in 1996 at the strong urging of Colombia’s human rights community, is one of only a few that the UN High Commissioner maintains worldwide. In addition to offering human-rights training, advice and technical support, the office monitors the human-rights situation in Colombia, producing public reports, investigating cases, receiving denunciations and issuing recommendations.

Through documents, press statements, interviews and speeches, the office’s director has a very influential pulpit from which to inform Colombia’s public – as well as to advise, critique, and contradict Colombia’s government and other armed actors. When he criticizes or praises someone, it makes headlines in Colombia. This implies a delicate balancing act. When the director uses his pulpit too bluntly or aggressively, he earns a backlash from the Colombian government, media, and ruling class in general. However, should a director step back from the pulpit, soften his tone, or choose to work “off the record” with government officialdom, human-rights activists, opposition figures, and even the media accuse him of being too timid.

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Jan 28

Carl Meacham, a staffer for Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, paid a visit to Bogotá on December 11-14. A moderate Republican (one of a disappearing breed), Sen. Lugar has been generally supportive of Plan Colombia. However, he has been one of the U.S. Congress’ chief critics of the paramilitary demobilization process. As the chairman of the committee, he plays an important role.

Meacham’s report (big PDF file) is a worthwhile read. I disagree with his analysis of Plan Patriota’s “success” and his recommendations for continued aid in its present form. I also wish he had taken the time to meet with representatives of Colombia’s human rights community and with other centrist analysts who hold a less sanguine view of Colombia’s security situation (such as CERAC and the Security and Democracy Foundation).

Nonetheless, the report differs strongly from the reigning view that everything is going wonderfully in Colombia. And it does contain some information that I hadn’t heard before, or at least hadn’t seen in writing before.

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Jan 24

Colombia’s paramilitary groups appear to be increasing their power, even as they “demobilize.” One key path to greater power has been Colombia’s electoral process. Through a few bribes and a lot of threats, the AUC’s bosses are guaranteeing that candidates allied to them win governorships, mayor’s offices and seats in the Congress.

After Colombia’s last congressional elections, in March 2002, AUC leader Salvatore Mancuso famously declared that the paramilitaries controlled about 30 percent of the legislature. That may have been an exaggeration at the time, but 30 percent or more could be a real possibility as the March 2006 congressional elections approach.

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Jan 24

In my final post to Democracy Arsenal, I offer a few random observations on what I saw and heard during my first-ever visit to Venezuela this past weekend. I was in Maracaibo to speak before a terrific gathering of hundreds of faith-based peace and human rights activists from Colombia and Venezuela. The trip was way too short to offer more than a few rapid, superficial comments about life in Chávez’s Venezuela, but I posted them anyway.

Jan 18

In another guest-post to Democracy Arsenal, I commemorate the 6th anniversary of Bill Clinton’s introduction of the "Plan Colombia" aid package. Perhaps too predictably, the article finds that "the results of U.S. aid to Colombia have been remarkably disappointing."

But "rather than explain why with an exhaustive, point-by-point disquisition," the post borrows heavily from the Harper’s Index, with 69 different arguments in numerical form. Draw your own conclusion.

Jan 17

Narconews.com is an informative website that performs a very aggressive brand of investigative journalism. Their radical politics and their willingness to take risks can put them on the leading edge of important stories, though at other times it can lead them down a blind alley. (Would-be blockbusters that went nowhere include the 1,100 U.S. Marines allegedly inserted in southern Colombia three years ago, or the U.S. contractors in Peru being paid to kill guerrillas crossing the border from Colombia.)

This time, though, Narconews may be on to something big. Reporter Bill Conroy has obtained a December 2004 Justice Department memo alleging massive, murderous corruption in the Bogotá office of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and a cover-up by DEA and Justice Department internal-affairs officials. The memo is written by Thomas M. Kent, an attorney in the wiretap unit of the Justice Department’s Narcotic and Dangerous Drugs Section (DEA is part of the Justice Department). It makes four allegations that are summarized here as briefly as possible. (For more detail, see the memo itself [PDF format] or – with more context – Conroy’s piece.)

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Jan 14

Another post to Democracy Arsenal, this one about upcoming elections in Latin America and the Caribbean:

In the few minutes per week that they spend thinking about Latin America (am I giving them too much credit?), top foreign policymakers in the administration and Congress would do well to stop and take a deep breath. They will only do more damage if they find themselves hyperventilating about a “leftist wave” or a new “hemispheric axis of evil.”

Jan 13

President Uribe continues to ride high in the polls in advance of the March legislative and May presidential elections. However, many observers wonder whether we can expect a surprise from Colombia’s “democratic left” – the term often used to describe left-of-center parties and candidates working within the constitutional system.

Left-leaning third-party candidates did surprisingly well the last time Colombia held elections, in October 2003, when – despite high approval ratings for Uribe, their polar political opposite – they captured several key governorships and mayor’s offices, including Bogotá.

For now at least, very few expect a third-party leftist to unseat Uribe. But it is possible that a left-wing presidential candidate could perform much better than expected, and that leftist parties could do quite well in the congressional elections. They even stand a chance of unseating the Liberal Party as the principal opposition bloc, essentially moving from third-party to “second-party” status.

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Jan 11

Over the next ten days or so, I’ll be dividing my blogging time between “Plan Colombia and Beyond” and a more generalist (and highly recommended) foreign policy blog, the Security and Peace Initiative’s “Democracy Arsenal,” where I’m filling in as a guest contributor. When I post there and not here, I’ll put a link from this site to that one.

My inaugural post to that blog notes that a frustration of being a Latin Americanist “is watching the United States today repeating mistakes worldwide that it used to make only in Latin America.” It’s even got a multiple-choice quiz.

Jan 09

Right now, here are our best estimates of the aid Colombia has received from the United States since 2004. (For estimates going all the way back to 1997, visit this page.)

2004: $690.1 million ($555.1 million, or 80 percent, military and police aid; the rest economic and social aid).

2005, estimate: $774.6 million ($643.3 million, or 83 percent, military and police aid; the rest economic and social aid).

2006, request: $751.0 million ($612.5 million, or 82 percent, military and police aid; the rest economic and social aid).

The 2004 number is pretty solid. The 2005 number reflects what, as of several months ago, the U.S. government estimated it might spend; actual amounts for 2005 won’t be available for another month or so. The 2006 number reflects what the Bush administration asked Congress to fund for this year.

Where do these numbers come from? What do they pay for? Here, as briefly as possible, is a walk through U.S. aid to Colombia. We hope to provide a more detailed overview in February, after the Bush administration makes its 2007 request to Congress.

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Jan 06

Bolivia’s president-elect, Evo Morales, paid a visit to Venezuela on Tuesday, as part of a “world tour” prior to his late January inauguration. There, he met with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and with Ollanta Humala, a populist who holds a slim lead in polls for Peru’s April presidential elections. Chávez celebrated the formation of what he called a new “axis of good” in Latin America, and Morales said he and Chávez were uniting in “a fight against neoliberalism and imperialism.”

The Bolivian president-elect did not leave empty-handed. In a signed agreement, Chávez committed Venezuela to providing Bolivia with the following:

  • An immediate $30 million donation to pay for social programs.
  • According to Bolivia’s La Razón newspaper, “Venezuela will supply all of the fuel that the Bolivian population consumes, which has an approximate cost of $150 million per year, in exchange for food produced in Bolivia.”
  • Technical assistance for gas and oil exploration, and assistance in overhauling Bolivia’s energy sector.
  • A commitment to help Bolivia build highways, both within the country and between Bolivia and its neighbors.
  • Educational assistance to Bolivia, including a literacy program with the goal of eradicating illiteracy within thirty months.
  • Venezuelan assistance with land reform, agriculture and healthcare.

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Jan 05

It was startling to hear President Bush prominently use the phrase “Clear, Hold and Build” several weeks ago, when he was presenting his National Strategy for Victory in Iraq. He was referring to their security objective of “clearing” a zone of insurgents through military force, “holding” onto the newly conquered zone, then bringing in the government to “build” a state presence.

I was startled because “clear and hold” is a bit of jargon I’ve heard repeatedly in discussions over the past few years with U.S. advisors and officials working in Colombia. They like to use the term to describe how they’re trying to help the Colombian government take back territory from guerrilla groups. In particular, it is the stated objective of “Plan Patriota,” an large-scale, two-year-old Colombian military offensive taking place, with heavy U.S. support, in the country’s southern jungles and elsewhere.

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