Feb 28

According to a poll reported on Semana magazine’s website, the armed conflict is no longer Colombians’ chief concern. Instead, respondents said they were more worried about poverty, inequality and corruption.

The “Survey of Everyday Perceptions of the Conflict” taken by the University of the Andes and the Indepaz think-tank polled 2,000 people in twenty-one cities and towns, including large capitals and the urban centers of otherwise rural counties.

This could be good news. It could mean that Colombia’s political mood is becoming less warlike and more open to addressing the conflict’s underlying causes: poverty, rural underdevelopment, impunity, state weakness and the absence of the rule of law.

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Feb 25

CIP was among several NGOs invited to spend a few hours yesterday afternoon in a “consultation” with officials in charge of USAID’s human rights program in Colombia. Part of USAID’s $20 million-per-year “democracy” program area in Colombia [PDF format], the human-rights section supports Colombian government agencies, civil-society human rights groups, and a government “early warning system” to prevent abuses. It overlaps closely with other USAID programs like judicial reform, physical protection of human-rights defenders, and support for displaced people and ex-combatants.

The meeting was quite detailed and frank. There was general consensus about what wasn’t working – the early-warning system, and especially the costly and utterly results-free work of the Colombian vice-president’s human rights program. There was praise for what was working – assistance to the Procuraduría human-rights unit and the Defensoría, the flawed but necessary Interior Ministry protection program, and efforts to ensure that human-rights groups critical of U.S. policy may still receive assistance, despite a past controversy.

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Feb 23

Leonida Zurita is a cocalera peasant leader, a close ally of Bolivian President Evo Morales, and now an alternate senator in Bolivia’s Congress. She has published an op-ed in the New York Times, spoken at Harvard University and several other U.S. schools, and is by far one of the most prominent women in Bolivian politics.

Senator Zurita is supposed to be in Florida right now, on the first leg of a three-week speaking tour that would take her to Florida International University, the University of Florida, Stanford University, the University of Vermont, and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, among others. She was to be in Washington two weeks from now, and the Center for International Policy was helping to organize a public event and a few meetings for her on Capitol Hill.

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Feb 22

Gen. Reynaldo Castellanos, the head of Colombia’s army until yesterday morning, should not have been forced to resign. His departure cannot be considered a blow against impunity in the armed forces. We’re still waiting to see whether such a blow will be struck.

Gen. Castellanos was forced out following revelations of horrific torture suffered by twenty-one young recruits in late January, as they underwent basic training at the army’s Center for Instruction and Training in Piedras, Tolima department. According to the Colombian newsmagazine Semana, which broke the story, the soldiers – most from poor rural backgrounds – were subjected to extremely cruel treatment: burned with hot irons, forced to eat animal excrement, and sexually abused.

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Feb 20

One of a group of less-radical guerrillas who left the ELN in 1994, León Valencia is now one of the most insightful analysts of Colombia’s conflict and politics. He has been on a roll lately: his latest columns, which appear in El Tiempo and other Colombian papers, have been particularly useful to those of us trying to comprehend the rather confused current moment in Colombia. Whether discussing the security situation, critiquing the paramilitary talks, or calling for unity on Colombia’s non-violent left (as in the latest Actualidad Colombiana), Valencia’s writings have been adding new information to the debate.

Here is a translation of his column in yesterday’s El Tiempo, which is probably the best answer I’ve seen in a while to the oft-asked question, “Is Uribe beating the FARC?” (The short answer is “no.”)

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Feb 19

Even while funding for fumigation and counter-drug military aid to Colombia remain constant, the Bush administration’s 2007 budget request includes deep cuts in funding for domestic drug treatment. This, even though study after study has found treatment to be the most effective way of reducing drug abuse in the United States.

One of the officials most responsible for this bizarre mismatch in priorities, Drug Czar John Walters, testified in the House on Thursday. Here is an account of Walters’ performance from John Walsh, who works on drug policy at the Washington Office on Latin America. John notes that the drug czar failed even to mention the supposed increase in U.S. cocaine prices that his office documented, with much fanfare, back in November. Nor did Walters even hint that coca cultivation in Colombia might have decreased last year.

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Feb 17

Álvaro Uribe is having a difficult time on his visit to Washington this week. Not only is he suffering from a high fever even as he goes from meeting to meeting, he can’t seem to get much of what he is asking for.

He has so far been unable to get the Bush administration to budge on the agricultural component of free trade talks, the main purpose of his visit. Today’s editorial in the Washington Post goes embarrassingly far in its hero-worship of Uribe, but its main argument is right on: the U.S. government must give significant ground to Colombia on agricultural trade in order to avoid dealing a strong blow to a countryside already ravaged by coca and conflict.

Uribe’s pleas appear to be going unheard. He was unable to get President Bush to say that the U.S. government is committed to reaching a trade agreement soon (“espero que sí” and “vamos a ver” were Bush’s Spanish replies). Upon emerging from his White House meeting, noted the Associated Press, “The jovial and even joking Uribe of the past had been substituted by an evidently tense Uribe.”

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Feb 16

Though you wouldn’t know it if you only read English-language media, there is a lot going on in Colombia at the moment. Here is an overview, in the form of quotes from participants and analysts. All of them are from the month of February, most from the past week.

President Uribe is in Washington this week. The main purpose of his visit is to personally manage free-trade talks with the U.S. government, which are in their latter stages. Many Colombians fear that the country’s already battered rural sector will be overwhelmed by a flood of heavily subsidized U.S. produce.

  • “What we don’t want is peasant groups to return to the drugs trade. A free trade deal must not kill alternative development.” Andrés Pastrana, Colombia’s ambassador to the United States.
  • “I hope that [Uribe’s presence] allows them more flexibility, especially in agriculture.” – U.S. Trade Negotiator Rob Portman.
  • “In a year in which polls show the Democrats gaining seats in Congress, Colombia has zero possibility of winning concessions [in trade talks]. … The Colombian government has resigned itself to trying to rescue the drowned man’s hat. That’s why Uribe is going to Washington.” – Polo Democrático Alternativo Senator and presidential candidate Antonio Navarro, in his Cambio magazine column.

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Feb 14

Years of U.S.-supported aerial herbicide fumigation have caused thousands of Colombian coca-growing peasants, presented with no viable legal alternatives, to plant coca in Colombia’s national park system. More than 10,000 hectares of coca are now planted in national parks, out of approximately 80,000-115,000 hectares planted nationwide. While fumigation is currently prohibited in parks, Colombians have been debating whether to expand the spraying of “Round-Up” into these natural reserves.

Those who are horrified by this idea cite the potential damage that the glyphosate-based herbicide could do to fragile ecosystems. They point out that fumigation elsewhere has caused a huge increase in “attempted” coca-growing – the area sprayed plus the area left over – which means that hundreds of thousands of additional acres of forest, much of it in parks, could disappear.

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Feb 10

Yesterday’s New York Times article on Bolivia ("Bush Budget Would Cut Military Aid to Bolivia by 96 Percent") creates a few impressions about U.S. military aid trends in Bolivia that need further clarification. Since I’m cited in the article, I’ve received a number of e-mails indicating a need to clear up these impressions.

1. All military and police aid to Bolivia is not going down by 96 percent in 2007. In particular, counter-drug aid is being cut much less drastically. Our best guess (since at this early stage much aid must still be estimated based on past years) is that 2007 military aid would be $9.3 million lower than 2006. That’s an 18 percent drop in military aid from 2006 to 2007, and a 25 percent drop from 2005 to 2007. It’s still steep, but not as radical as 96 percent.

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Feb 09

In 2001, Newsweek reporter Joe Contreras spent some time in the Caribbean port of Barranquilla, Colombia’s fourth-largest city. There, he reported on Hernán Giraldo, the drug-trafficking paramilitary leader who was perhaps the most powerful figure in the city, the nearby port of Santa Marta, and in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region to their south.

In the foothills of the snowcapped Sierra Nevadas in northeastern Colombia, the Kogi Indians whisper his name in fear. Along the docks of the Caribbean port city of Santa Marta, gangsters speak with awe of his 400-man private army. But everyone knows that when it comes to Hernan Giraldo Serna, it’s usually best not to know too much. The gangsters quietly recall, for instance, that in 1999 Giraldo ordered the brutal murders of four construction workers, whose bodies were then cut to bits with a chain saw. Their offense? They had built a special basement to store his multimillion-dollar cache of cocaine, and they knew where it was.

Colombian intelligence sources at the time told Contreras that “Giraldo alone is head of a burgeoning drug syndicate that accounts for $1.2 billion in annual shipments to the United States and Europe. That puts him among the country’s top five cocaine traffickers.”

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Feb 08

Here are a few quick observations on the Bush administration’s proposed aid to Latin America in 2007. Don’t expect too much detail because at this early stage, we only have information from one document: the State Department’s bare-bones summary of its “Function 150” (foreign affairs) request.

(If you’re interested, more detailed information will be available in about a week when the State Department issues its 1,000-page Congressional Budget Justification for Foreign Operations; then in April, when the State Department’s narcotics bureau releases its own detailed budget justification; on April 15, when the Defense Department must submit a newly required report on its own counter-narcotics aid; and in April or May when the State and Defense Departments release a detailed report on foreign military training in 2005. Links to these and other reports will always be here.)

1. Aid to Colombia will be largely unchanged in 2007, as expected. We estimate that Colombia would get about $724 million under the Bush administration’s plan for 2007. This would be about $17 million less than what Colombia received in 2006 – but since this is an estimate, we could be off by about that much. It is nonetheless safe to say that aid to Colombia is not growing.

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Feb 06

What’s going on here?

In just over 24 hours last week, we heard four Bush administration officials offer wildly divergent opinions about Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales and so-called “radical populism” in Latin America:

On one hand…

On the other hand…

“The President spoke with President Morales of Bolivia. The President called to congratulate President Morales on his election and inauguration. The President also commended the Bolivian people for their strong commitment to the democratic process. The President expressed our commitment to helping the Bolivian people realize their aspirations for a better life. And President Morales outlined his agenda for social and economic change in Bolivia. Both leaders reiterated their interest in a constructive U.S.-Bolivian relationship and dialogue.”
– White House spokesman Scott McLellan, February 1, 2006

“The situation now [regarding Bolivia] is deeds not words. Let’s take a chill pill.”
“The fact of the matter is that we’re finding it harder and harder to send our officers to Venezuela but we do want to keep that relationship going.”
“We’ve had populism for years. I don’t know if it is more radical.”
– Southern Command Commander Gen. Bantz Craddock, February 2, 2006

“We’ve seen some populist leadership appealing to masses of people in those countries. And elections like Evo Morales in Bolivia take place that clearly are worrisome. I mean, we’ve got Chavez in Venezuela with a lot of oil money. He’s a person who was elected legally – just as Adolf Hitler was elected legally – and then consolidated power and now is, of course, working closely with Fidel Castro and Mr. Morales and others.”
– Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, February 2, 2006

“In Venezuela, President Chavez, if he wins reelection later this year, appears ready to use his control of the legislature and other institutions to continue to stifle the opposition, reduce press freedom, and entrench himself through measures that are technically legal, but which nonetheless constrict democracy. We expect Chavez to deepen his relationship with Castro (Venezuela provides roughly two-thirds of that island’s oil needs on preferential credit terms). He also is seeking closer economic, military, and diplomatic ties with Iran and North Korea.”
– Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte, February 2, 2006 [PDF format]

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Feb 04

I spent most of last week in Miami, where I paid a visit to Southern Command and some of a conference on security in the Americas, along with colleagues from several other NGOs. We discussed and debated topics ranging from Colombia to terrorism to "populism" to gangs to Guantánamo, and much else. There were strong disagreements and concerns, of course, but also some areas of agreement. I’ve posted my trip report as a sort of "encore post" to Democracy Arsenal. It discusses three new things I learned, three things we agreed on, three things on which we disagreed, and three things about which I’m not sure whether we agreed or not.