Apr 30

Go hiking in Shenandoah National Park, about an hour and a half west of Washington, and you might come across foundations or other remains of old houses. It turns out that the heavily forested spot on which you are enjoying scenery and wildlife was once cleared farmland where rural families scratched out a living.

A National Parks Service website explains the history:

In the 1930s, Shenandoah National Park was pieced together from over 3,000 individual tracts of land, purchased or condemned by the Commonwealth of Virginia and presented to the Federal Government. In the process, at least 500 families – described as “almost completely cut off from the current of American life” – were displaced in what was considered by some to be a humanitarian act.

Archeologists in the park have since found “an array of kitchen and dining wares, pharmaceutical glass, military items, mail order toys, 78 RPM record fragments, specialized agricultural tools, store-bought shoes, and even automobiles.”

I was reminded of this by a debate Monday night before a George Washington University class. I was paired with Jaime Ruiz, a principal author of Plan Colombia who is now Ambassador Pastrana’s number-two at the Colombian embassy in Washington.

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Apr 26

The Bush administration’s ability to portray failure as success – and to believe its own spin – is by now so legendary that it barely needs to be acknowledged here. From Tim Russert to Jon Stewart, commentators repeatedly note the yawning gap between perception and reality in current U.S. policymaking.

We know all about the divorce from reality in Iraq (“Mission Accomplished,” “pockets of dead-enders,” “last throes”), the blindness to Hurricane Katrina’s urgency (“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees,”), the denial of a human role in global warming (“There is a natural greenhouse effect that contributes to warming”), and the list goes on.

But this willful blindness to bad news – and resulting failure to change course – never ceases to amaze. Today’s exhibit A is an op-ed about Colombia that appears in today’s Miami Herald. Its author is Nicholas Burns, who as undersecretary for political affairs is the third highest-ranking official in the State Department.

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Apr 24

In a March 31 entry to his blog, El Espectador columnist Felipe Zuleta referred to the case of Gabriel Puerta Parra (alias “The Doctor”), a longtime narcotrafficker and paramilitary associate arrested in late 2004. The U.S. government requested Puerta’s extradition in early 2004, and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe gave his final approval over two months ago. The extradition policy, notes Zuleta,

is the one that is going to put our ruling class into a jam. That is why they haven’t wanted to extradite Gabriel Puerta Parra, whose extradition has been ready since February 20, despite the rapidity with which this government extradites. Could it be that Puerta Parra knows too many things about our president? What could it be?

“He Knows Too Much” is the title of an article about Puerta that appeared a few days later on the website of Colombia’s Semana newsmagazine. It includes an overview of his background as an important behind-the-scenes figure in the twin rise of narcotrafficking and paramilitarism in Colombia during the last fifteen years.

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Apr 21

Here is the translated text of a very disturbing letter that made its way into my e-mail two weeks ago, thanks to the Fundación Nuevo Arco Iris in Bogotá. Addressed to President Uribe, it discusses rapidly deteriorating conditions in San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá.

You may recall that San Vicente was the largest town in the "demilitarized zone" that was ceded to the FARC during 1998-2002 peace talks. Since 2004, it has been at the heart of the zone where the Colombian government’s U.S.-supported "Plan Patriota" military offensive has been taking place.

The letter makes clear that "Plan Patriota" has not made San Vicente any safer. It indicates that the FARC are heavily present throughout San Vicente, and that as of early March a guerrilla "armed stoppage" had confined this large town’s population to the city limits. The signers are concerned that the guerrillas may soon launch a bloody attack in the town center.

The letter, which denounces both FARC hostilities and government human-rights abuses within the "Plan Patriota" framework, is also remarkable because of the range of signers: business, church and political leaders appear alongside indigenous, union and leftist party leaders.

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Apr 18

The main reason Álvaro Uribe dominates the polling for the May elections is security, as one of his opponents, the leftist former supreme-court judge Carlos Gaviria, explained recently.

A public-opinion study carried out by the University of the Andes at the end of last year and released at the beginning of this year indicates that the President is way off course in the fight against poverty, inequality and unemployment. But when people are asked if they will vote for Uribe again, they say yes. Why? Because the great deceiver of the people is "Democratic Security."

President Uribe’s opponents are clearly frustrated to see him coasting toward a second term on Colombia’s lowered violence indicators, particularly when his Democratic Security policy’s flaws appear so evident.

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Apr 15

Here is a memo (PDF format) CIP is sending out to media, congressional staff and other colleagues this morning.

At 5:00 yesterday, Good Friday, the U.S. government announced that coca cultivation in Colombia last year totaled 144,000 hectares, a level not seen since 2002. While this appears to be a 30,000-hectare increase over 2004 levels, the White House Drug Czar’s press release cautions that much of the increase owes to newly discovered coca in areas that U.S. satellites were not monitoring before.

No matter what the reason for the huge increase measured in 2005, the following points are indisputable.

1.      According to an October 2000 White House report, “The goal of President Pastrana’s Plan Colombia (October 1999) is to reduce Colombia’s cultivation, processing, and distribution of drugs by 50 percent over six years.” The 2005 coca-cultivation figures reported yesterday show that Plan Colombia has demonstrably failed to reach that goal. It hasn’t even come close.
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Apr 13

If you’ve ever traveled to Colombia, then you’ve seen the DAS, the government’s Administrative Department for Security. As soon as you get off the plane, DAS employees are there to stamp your passport and, perhaps, to ask why you’re visiting.

The DAS does much more than stamp passports, though. It is a powerful agency, a sort of “secret police” institution founded in 1960. Its principal purpose is intelligence and counterintelligence, both domestic and international. However, it is also a law enforcement body whose agents have judicial police powers – they investigate crimes and can arrest and interrogate people. The DAS also provides bodyguards and security services for high government officials and other people at risk.

To someone familiar with the U.S. government, the DAS is a strange beast. It incorporates aspects of the FBI, the CIA, and the ICE (immigration). Plus, it is not part of any cabinet ministry like Defense or Interior – it is a part of the Colombian president’s office.

If you think this arrangement seems like a recipe for disaster, you’re right. Disaster has struck with a vengeance during Álvaro Uribe’s administration. According to recent reports in Colombia’s media and testimony from former officials, between 2002 and 2005 the DAS was essentially at the service of paramilitaries and major narcotraffickers. It drew up hitlists of union members and leftist activists, and even plotted to destabilize Venezuela.

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Apr 09

“Colombia needs and deserves peace, but Uribe represents the exact opposite,” reads a February communiqué from the FARC. “What is at stake in these elections is the future of Colombia.”

If the FARC leadership really wishes to prevent Álvaro Uribe from being re-elected in May, though, it has a strange way of showing it. If anything, the FARC are making Uribe’s job easier.

Look at some of the guerrillas’ actions just over the past week or so. They seem tailor-made to benefit Uribe, even though he is the candidate who promises to hit the FARC the hardest.

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Apr 07

Álvaro Uribe’s critics in Colombia often charge that his strategy is too heavily weighted toward the military. They argue that his “Democratic Security” plan has neglected the social and economic dimension, and that sharp increases in military spending have come at the expense of essential non-military services, including aid to the poorest. For his part, Uribe responds to these critics with statistics showing that, in fact, social expenditure has increased since he took office in 2002.

The Colombian government’s comptroller, Antonio Hernández Gamarra, has strongly questioned the Uribe administration’s claims. Speaking before Colombia’s Restrepo Barco Foundation in Bogotá on Tuesday, Hernández acknowledged that government social expenditure has indeed risen, both in peso terms and as a percentage of the national budget. However, he cautioned, this increase owes mainly to one type of spending: the rising cost of pensions for retirees. Worse, Hernández added, when one defines “social expenditure” more strictly as funding for poverty reduction, income redistribution or “human capital formation,” the amount spent each year is up to 20 percent less than the official government estimate.

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Apr 05

The José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (the “Colectivo”) is a non-governmental group based in the Avianca building in downtown Bogotá. It represents many of the victims of military and paramilitary abuses in Colombian courts and in international bodies. Its lawyers work closely with civil-society groups in some of Colombia’s most conflictive areas. Its lawyers are some of the most threatened human-rights defenders in Colombia.

Last week, the Colectivo invited me to participate in a very impressive conference-workshop attended by civil-society representatives from several zones hit hardest by violence and drug trafficking. Present at the two-day event were campesino, labor, indigenous, Afro-Colombian, human-rights and women’s group representatives from Chocó, Norte de Santander, Arauca, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Bolívar, Cauca, Nariño, Putumayo, Guaviare, and Caquetá. Many had traveled by bus for an entire day to attend, in some cases defying guerrilla orders to halt all road traffic. Also in attendance were representatives of many Bogotá-based groups, as well as experts from Peru and Ecuador.

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Apr 02

Greetings from Bogotá, where I’m on a quick trip to take part in a meeting of social organizations from several conflictive regions of Colombia (Meta, Caquetá, Nariño, Arauca, Putumayo, Cauca, Guaviare and others), plus Peru and Ecuador. [Update as of Saturday morning: I’m now in the Bogotá airport with no Internet access. I’ll post this as soon as I can and apologize for the lack of posts this week.] I’ve learned a lot and am still digesting what I’ve heard, so I’m not going to write about that yet.

Instead, I want to draw attention to this op-ed in Tuesday’s Boston Globe about a “global counterinsurgency” to guide U.S. foreign policy. This sounds horrible on the surface: “let’s do what we did in El Salvador all over the world!” And the authors – one from the U.S. Institute of Peace and one from the Joint Special Operations University – make their case by using language that a group like CIP would never use. (Example: “In Iraq and around the world, we will never peacefully dissuade those dedicated to violence against us. They must be captured or killed.”)

But reading further, the authors make several points that (a) make a lot of sense and (b) are perfectly applicable to Colombia.

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