Nov 30

Note as of 2:00PM: I’ve heard that some have had trouble accessing the Colombian Presidency’s apparently overloaded server to view the proofs of life. The pictures can also be downloaded here, and the (very sad) video can be viewed here on YouTube. 

The Colombian government announced a few hours ago that, while carrying out operations against FARC urban units in Bogotá, soldiers and prosecutorial investigators captured three people with videos, letters and digital photos providing recent evidence that many of the guerrillas’ hostages are still alive.

The Colombian Presidency’s office has posted the photos and a soundless video. They are heartbreaking and hard to watch. Ingrid Betancourt, gaunt and with long hair, stares at the ground. The three U.S. citizens appear in the videos and in photos, each standing near a wooden chair in the midst of thick jungle.

The photos are dated October 23 and 24, though a few – including those of the U.S. hostages – are dated January 1, probably a digital-camera error.

The FARC produced these images in response to a request from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a request that was seconded by other governments and individuals who were accompanying the prisoner-for-hostage-exchange mediation effort that ended so abruptly last week. When the process ended, we were left wondering whether the FARC had even made this small concession. It turns out that they had.

These “proofs of life” were intended to be a show of good faith, an initial step to move the process forward. Today, though, there is no process.

That is unacceptable. These photos make clear the urgency of re-initiating contacts and working, patiently and persistently, to bring these people home.

Nov 29

If you are concerned about dismantling paramilitarism in Colombia and ending its influence over Colombia’s government, the past week has been very eventful. You are forgiven, though, if you missed these important developments:

  • Since Monday, five top paramilitary leaders have been giving their “confessions” before prosecutors: Salvatore Mancuso, Diego “Don Berna” Murillo, Ever “H.H.” Veloza, Ramiro “Cuco” Vanoy, and Juan Carlos “El Tuso” Sierra.

“H.H.” acknowledged responsibility for up to 1,500 killings in the northwestern region of Urabá. “Don Berna” indicated that he would reveal the locations of 300 mass graves around Medellín and eastern Antioquia. Vanoy detailed his collaboration with Mexico’s Juárez cartel to ship drugs to the United States. Mancuso was publicly challenged by victims claiming that the paramilitary leader threatened them in late 2005 – a year after he “demobilized” – after they sought to get back land he had taken from them.

  • The “para-politics” scandal continues to implicate Colombian politicians. Magdalena congressman Alfonso Campo was sentenced to six years in prison for helping paramilitary groups. In his confession, “H.H.” spoke of his assistance to the governor of Cauca department, Juan José Chaux, and his contacts with Senator Luis Fernando Velasco. “Don Berna” told of his support for Representative Eleonora Pineda and Senator Miguel de la Espriella. Salvatore Mancuso told of seventy murders his men carried out at the order of the mayor of Cúcuta, Ramiro Suárez.
  • A bad precedent was almost set for the para-politics investigations. A judge in the town of Lorica, Córdoba, nearly absolved several politicians who signed a 2001 document pledging support for paramilitary leaders, arguing that they were not guilty of “aggravated” conspiracy. This threatened to set a precedent that might apply to many other accused “para-politicians.” This outcome was averted, for now, by a higher court’s reversal of this decision. However the “aggravated conspiracy” loophole has not been definitively closed.
  • Last but not least: 10 years after the paramilitary massacre of nearly 50 people in Mapiripán, Meta, a court yesterday acquitted Gen. Jaime Uscátegui, the brigade commander who refused to come to the community’s aid.

This news, important as it is, has received little notice in Colombia’s public consciousness. It has been completely drowned out by the escalating war of words between Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Colombia’s Álvaro Uribe.

During the past day or two, in fact, most of the words have been coming out of Caracas. President Chávez has pulled his ambassador from Bogotá, announced a “break” in bilateral relations, and has sworn to have “no type of relationship” with Uribe, “a president capable of lying shamelessly,” as long as he remains in office.

These are strong words, and they are likely aimed at a domestic audience. Venezuelans go to the polls in three days to consider a package of constitutional reforms that could, among other things, give President Chávez the right to seek indefinite re-election. The most recent polls indicate that Chávez’s proposals may run into trouble at the ballot box. An international crisis, with appeals to nationalism, could work to Chávez’s advantage.

But it also works to President Uribe’s advantage. Gallup’s poll of people with telephones in major cities found Uribe’s approval rating to be at a stunning 78 percent last week. Now, after several days of attacks from Chávez, it could be well into the eighties. President Uribe should send Chávez a thank-you note.

President Chávez’s attacks have also helped Uribe by taking Colombians’ minds off of the alleged links between Uribe’s supporters and paramilitary groups. The louder Chávez’s rhetoric gets, the further the messy “para-politics” and “Justice and Peace” processes will get shoved to Colombia’s back burner.

This in turn will mean less pressure to address the problem of paramilitarism and organized crime, and its influence over Colombia’s government. It will also mean less pressure to find a new way to facilitate the release of the FARC’s hostages.

These are both topics that make the Uribe government very uncomfortable – but both are on hold this week. Ironically, President Chávez’s provocations are giving President Uribe a lot of political breathing room at home. They provide a distraction that Colombia can ill afford.

Nov 27

Elections in Colombia, Guatemala, Argentina and soon Venezuela. Collapsed peace talks in Colombia and tensions between Colombia and Venezuela. A big U.S. aid package proposed amid rising narco-violence in Mexico.

All of this recent activity has kept attention away from Bolivia, where a constituent assembly has been struggling to rewrite the country’s constitution ahead of a December 14 deadline. Efforts to hold the assembly in Bolivia’s “second capital,” Sucre (where the country’s Supreme Court meets), have been stymied by repeated protests. The protesters, with the support of opponents of President Evo Morales, want to move Bolivia’s capital to Sucre.

Things blew up last weekend. Meeting on a military installation in Sucre, with few (or no) opposition constituents present, a pro-government rump of constituents approved a draft constitution.

The opposition was enraged. Sucre was rapidly consumed by violence on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with at least four people killed and 200 wounded. The police pulled entirely out of Sucre. The violence has momentarily died down, but the severe political crisis continues.

If, like us, you have been distracted from giving Bolivia the attention it deserves, here are some useful recent analyses. It is hard to find coverage that is not biased one way or the other. If you see anything else, post a link in the comments.

Nov 26

While Colombia and Venezuela have never fought a war, their relations have often been distant and uncomfortable. However, these rivals in South America’s “northern tier” have always avoided conflict in the past.

This has remained true today, even though both countries have rather personalistic leaders with very different political beliefs. The bilateral relationship – one cemented by US$6 billion per year in trade – has largely been sound.

While cabinet ministers and other government officials have traded barbs and insults, difficulties have been quickly papered over by very cordial “summit” meetings between Presidents Uribe and Chávez. “Past meetings have shown that the two leaders can work together when their positions are not filtered through the hard-liners on both sides,” we wrote back in January 2005.

That dynamic appeared to be in place last week, after Uribe abruptly
revoked Chávez’s authority to act as a facilitator of
prisoner-for-hostage exchange negotiations with the FARC guerrillas.

Chávez had to have been angry. He had invested much time, resources, personal prestige and political capital in the dialogue effort. But his statement last Thursday took the high road. It was a model of diplomacy and magnanimity.

The government of Venezuela sends the relatives, fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, sons, daughters, of the hundreds of Colombians who have been at the center of our sincere and modest efforts a message of faith, first in God and later in the good judgment of those who have in their hands the power to make timely, wise rectifications and subsequent decisions, while encouraging them to continue their tireless pilgrimage in search of their loved ones. The government and people of Venezuela, despite this regrettable decision of the Colombian government, have their hearts and arms open to continue lending their humble services to the cause of life and peace.

President Chávez, however, veered from the high road in a state television interview on Saturday, perhaps provoked by President Uribe’s words in a speech given on Friday.

Uribe on Friday: These Colombian terrorists have known how to make “useful idiots” out of everyone who has extended them a hand. … These bandits have abused international good-offices, the Colombian people’s pain for the kidnap victims, and have wanted to return to combining different forms of struggle, while carrying out political protagonism in international capitals. In Caracas, abusing the need for a humanitarian accord.

Chávez on Saturday: “There are people very close to Uribe, people with lots of power, who don’t want there to be an agreement. I wouldn’t venture to say that (Uribe) doesn’t want it, but I’m sure there are people very close to him who just want war.”

The Venezuelan president intensified his verbal attacks on Sunday, using language about Uribe that he had never before employed in public.

Sunday: “I declare before the world that I’m putting relations with Colombia in the freezer because I’ve completely lost confidence with everyone in the Colombian government.”

“They have spat brutally in our face when we worked heart and soul to try to get them on the road to peace.”

“They issued a statement yesterday filled with lies, and that is serious, very serious,”

“President Uribe is lying … in a shameless, horrible, ugly way. I think Colombia deserves another president, it deserves a better president.”

“I’m sure he didn’t want to continue in the process, the gringos pressure him a lot.”

President Uribe escalated the war of words further.

Sunday: “Your words, your positions, suggest you are not interested in peace in Colombia, but rather in Colombia becoming the victim of a terrorist government of the FARC.”

“The truth, President Chavez, is that we need mediation against the terrorists not one that legitimizes terrorism. The truth. President Chavez, is that if you are fomenting an expansionist project in the continent, it has no entrance in Colombia.”

Uribe and Chávez have had difficulties in the past, but their language was never anywhere near as harsh as this. The breakdown of Chávez’s facilitation role has brought the bilateral relationship to
a dangerously poor level. The rhetoric must cool before it escalates in directions that neither side – indeed, none of the hemisphere – wants to see.

1. Let’s hope things cool down after December 2. While Chávez is no doubt angry about his abrupt termination, we must recall that everything in Venezuela right now is occurring in the context of a referendum scheduled for this Sunday. In six days, Venezuelans will go to the polls to approve or reject a set of constitutional reforms that Chávez’s critics are portraying as a naked power grab. Polls are showing citizens supporting the reforms, but not by a large margin. President Chávez may hope that nationalist sentiment resulting from the current crisis may increase voter turnout in favor of his reform package this Sunday. If that is the case, we should expect the rhetoric to cool after this week.

2. – Leave Piedad Córdoba alone. Until Thursday, Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba was a government-approved facilitator for the hostage-for-prisoner exchange talks. Now, she said on Sunday, she is facing treason charges. Agénce France Presse reports:

In Bogota, Cordoba said Sunday she was being investigated by her country’s Supreme Court for treason.

“They notified me yesterday; I am being investigated for treason and collusion,” Cordoba told Radio Caracol from Caracas. She did not say if the charges against her were related to her work as mediator or to unrelated allegations.

This, if accurate, is shocking. Senator Córdoba worked hard to forge a path toward a negotiated deal with the guerrillas, a task she was authorized to carry out. Her many critics may disagree with the way she performed this role, but to bring up such charges now smells like dirty politics.

3. This is exactly what the FARC would want. The guerrillas themselves must be pleased to be the cause of a genuine international crisis. It shows them to be politically influential, while offering hope that the crisis will distract the Colombian government from the internal conflict. Neither government should give them this advantage.

4. The presidents should meet again. A war of words in the media is a bad idea. Before things get too out of hand, another “summit” meeting is needed in order to paper over differences and smooth ruffled feathers. Let’s hope both countries’ foreign ministries are working on this right now.

Nov 22

The news from Colombia this Thanksgiving morning is very bad. Last night President Álvaro Uribe called an end to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s three-month-old attempt to mediate hostage-for-prisoner exchange talks with the FARC.

Citing a phone call that Chávez placed yesterday to the head of Colombia’s army, Uribe de-authorized the Venezuelan president and Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba, whom he had named as government-sanctioned “facilitators” for the talks back in August.

Though it had been happening with frustrating slowness, this latest effort to free the hostages had offered more hope than any previous attempt. Now it is over, suddenly, and no other near-term possibilities seem to exist.

We are stunned and saddened by this latest in a long line of frustrations. Our sympathies go to the family members of the 45 hostages, whose hopes of seeing their loved ones have once again been dashed.

Where do things stand now? A few observations.

  • The FARC gets much of the blame. The guerrillas once again deserve condemnation for precipitating the entire situation by cruelly holding hostages for so many years. They also come under fire for their continued rigidity at every stage in these initial conversations.

The FARC committed some grave errors during the process, two of them during the past ten days. The release of photos with mediator Sen. Piedad Córdoba, against her expressed wishes, dealt a severe blow in the arena of Colombian public opinion.

Then, perhaps more seriously, the FARC did Hugo Chávez an enormous disservice by allowing him to go on a long-planned trip to Paris with no proofs of life for hostage Ingrid Betancourt. Chávez, a politician like any other, must be furious with the guerrillas for forcing him to go before the expectant French public embarrassingly empty-handed.

  • But not all of the blame. The Uribe government gets some of the blame too. After “authorizing” Sen. Córdoba and President Chávez, it did little to make their difficult job any easier. It can absolutely not be said that there was a joint Colombian-Venezuelan effort to free the hostages. Instead, President Uribe made a show of nominating the two “facilitators,” then washing his hands of the whole affair.

Sen. Córdoba traveled to Washington three times with no apparent support from the Colombian government – no financial support, no official accompaniment, no sign that she had any political backing from Bogotá. The Colombian government made clear that it would use the military to make it difficult for the FARC to participate in dialogues with the facilitators.

President Chávez and Sen. Córdoba certainly committed their share of mistakes, though these were largely cases of indiscretions and overreaching. Neither one is a discrete professional mediator; both are politicians known for their energetic tenacity. Continue reading »

Nov 21

The Center for Strategic and International Studies issued a report last week arguing that U.S. support for Colombia has brought the country “back from the brink” of failed-statehood.

Colombia’s emergence from this grave crisis constitutes a success story. It is, however, a story that is not well known, despite the fact that billions of dollars in military and economic assistance from the United States helped bring Colombia “back from the brink.” Successful foreign policy initiatives normally have no shortage of executive branch or congressional leaders claiming authorship but, curiously, not in the case of Colombia.

The report was written by a CSIS researcher and two former diplomats with experience in Latin America. Due to the reputations of both CSIS and the authors, this report is likely to have some influence on the coming debates over aid and trade with Colombia.

Among the “political establishment” think-tanks who have published reports about Colombia in recent years, Back from the Brink places CSIS firmly to the right of groups that have issued more critical reports, including the Council on Foreign Relations (Andes 2020), the Center for American Progress (Rethinking U.S.-Colombia Policy), and the Woodrow Wilson Center (The Agony of Álvaro Uribe [PDF]).

While we agree that several of Colombia’s security and macroeconomic achievements have been impressive, we have two main critiques of this report.

  • The report effusively congratulates Colombia’s for taking initial steps toward performing some of the most basic roles expected of a state, while making no mention of excesses committed along the way.
  • The report greatly exaggerates the U.S. contribution toward these preliminary achievements, while downplaying that policy’s stark failure to slow the production of narcotics, which has been the purpose of most U.S. assistance since 1999.

That said – and perhaps surprisingly – we coincide strongly with the report’s recommendations.

Unlike similar past reports from elite think-tanks, Back from the Brink does not call for an increased U.S. military-aid commitment. It doesn’t call for expanded aerial herbicide fumigation. Instead, it recommends several emphases on stronger civilian governance, reduced impunity and pursuit of peace. We also support – and have long supported – these priorities, and we believe that many urgently need to be adopted.

As listed in the report’s executive summary, the CSIS recommendations are:

  • Consolidate legitimate state authority, especially in rural areas.
  • Strengthen the rule of law, devoting more resources to justice.
  • Devote greater attention to human rights.
  • Dismantle paramilitarism.
  • Pursue negotiations with guerrillas.
  • View state control of territory and increased employment opportunities (eradication is not mentioned) as the key elements of a counter-drug strategy.
  • Reduce poverty, particularly that of indigenous and afro-Colombian populations.

These recommendations are all right on, and it is very refreshing to see them coming from CSIS, a group usually associated with the “hard-headed realist” school of foreign policy. This is a big change from half a decade ago.

It is almost tempting to ignore the report’s inflated claims that Plan Colombia was a foreign policy miracle, if it means that CSIS will be joining forces in favor of these policy priorities.

Almost tempting – but not quite. Without offering a thorough, point-by-point response, we do wish to clear the record on a few issues.

The report’s implication that guerrillas were poised to take over the country in the late 1990s is misleading. According to Back from the Brink: Continue reading »

Nov 20

After less than 48 hours here in Cali (another conference), I’m about to go to the airport, traveling back to Washington today.

I look forward to having time to post actual information again, instead of just photos. In the meantime, though, here is a shot from my hotel-room window of the sun rising right now over southern Cali.

Nov 17

I had a couple of hours free earlier today, so I took the Transmilenio down Avenida Caracas to Avenida Jiménez, where I walked up the hill to the wonderful Lerner bookstore. (They have so many publications about politics, security and power in Colombia, books that you simply can’t find anywhere in the United States.)

Avenida Jiménez is a very busy place on a Saturday morning. It is a highly recommended walk – as long as you keep one hand on your bag at all times. I played the now-familiar role of “weird gringo with a camera.” Here are some more pictures.

(Higher-resolution versions of these and more are on the “PC&B Banner Images” set at flickr.com – scroll down for the latest. They’re all under a Creative Commons license – go ahead and use them if you wish, just give credit.)

Nov 16

It’s been a day full of meetings here in Bogotá, leaving no time at the computer keyboard to write. So instead, enjoy these pictures of the leftist graffiti on the walls of the National University. These buildings have been repainted so many times, it’s a wonder they don’t collapse under the weight of so many coats of exterior latex.

Nov 14

I just arrived in Bogotá, three hours late. (Seth Godin is right: American Airlines “gave up a long, long time ago.”)

I’ll be speaking tomorrow at a conference on U.S.-Colombian relations at the National University.

Meanwhile, I see that the posting I wrote while in the airport this morning got picked up by El Tiempo.com while I was still in flight. This has brought a flood of commenters, some of them exceedingly vicious. While I hate to moderate comments, I will no longer approve those that simply offer variations on “Piedad Córdoba is a guerrilla sympathizer” without offering any evidence. She clearly is not. She is a politician who is learning the hard way that being a mediator is a very, very hard job.

Anyway, here are some pictures of downtown Bogotá during this evening’s rush hour.

Nov 14

Critics of the Hugo Chávez-mediated effort to negotiate a hostage-for-prisoner exchange with the FARC got a big gift on Monday.

Some unfortunate photos from the talks were posted to the website of a group called the “Bolivarian Press Agency. They depict Piedad Córdoba, the Colombian opposition senator whom President Uribe had appointed as a mediator for the talks, posing the other day with top FARC leaders in Caracas.

Wearing the same beret as the FARC leaders, including secretariat member Iván Márquez and so-called “foreign minister” Rodrigo Granda, Córdoba holds a bouquet of flowers that the guerrillas had just presented her. All are standing in front of a large, colorful FARC banner.

The effect on Colombian public opinion will no doubt be devastating. The images give the impression of Senator Córdoba enjoying camaraderie with a group that runs drugs while killing and kidnapping thousands of people.

Córdoba says that the pictures are out of context, that they did not capture a typical moment at the Caracas meetings. She said that the presentation of the bouquet was highly unexpected, and that she had just jokingly taken the beret off of one of the guerrillas’ head and put it on, in an effort to “distensionar el ambiente” (to reduce tensions) after some “discusiones muy fuertes” (very strong words during the talks). She adds that she asked the guerrillas not to share the photos.

Though she is a politician from the left, Piedad Córdoba is not a FARC sympathizer. She has said that one of her biggest challenges since being named as a facilitator in August has been simply to win the guerrilla leaders’ trust. (Her meetings with FARC leaders in U.S. prisons have been, to some degree, a part of that effort.) A measure of trust and empathy, even on a superficial level, can make an interlocutor more flexible and conciliatory.

Creating an atmosphere of trust may mean an occasional moment of levity when the talks occur. But those moments should take place off camera. This is something that the FARC – in its rush to show the world that it is a legitimate political organization with friends in high places – ignored, with serious consequences for the nascent talks.

As these pictures are shown repeatedly in Colombia’s media, the damage to the process will be great. Though not fatal, they are a setback.

Our opinion is that Piedad Córdoba is not guilty of being a tool of the FARC. She did, however, commit two errors that a mediator must avoid: don’t be indiscreet, and don’t allow yourself to be used.

Nov 12

Last week the Bush administration’s “drug czar,” John Walters, made headlines during a trip to Colombia and Peru by repeating reports of a 44 percent rise in U.S. cocaine prices since January.

It is not time to break out the champagne, however. Even as Walters trumpets a cocaine “shortage,” evidence seems to indicate that the drug’s price may be on its way back down again.

The price data Walters cites are also mentioned in the 2008 National Drug Threat Assessment [PDF], an annual report put out by the Justice Department’s National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC).

This is a very interesting report, well worth a look. While acknowledging that cocaine prices shot up in 2007, the it does not seem to share the Drug Czar’s optimism.

First, even though Walters announced it while in Colombia and Peru last week, the NDIC notes that the shortage did not result from anything the U.S. government has done in Colombia or the Andes. To the contrary:

Potential South American cocaine production increased in 2006 as Colombian coca growers adapted their growing practices to counter intensified coca eradication. Potential South American cocaine production increased in 2006 as Colombian coca growers adapted their growing practices to counter intensified coca eradication. Despite increasingly aggressive coca eradication efforts, U.S. Government estimates of coca cultivation in South America indicate that cocaine producers potentially produced 970 metric tons (MT) of pure cocaine in 2006, a 7 percent increase from 910 MT in 2005 and the highest level since 2002.

Instead, the report gives the credit for the cocaine-price increase to “[A] combination of factors that included large cocaine seizures in transit toward the United States, law enforcement efforts against prominent Mexican DTOs [drug trafficking organizations], violent conflicts between competing Mexican DTOs, and increased competition from non-U.S. markets.”

Second, the Justice Department report hints that the recent cocaine price rise could prove to be short lived.

In certain cities, these shortages have continued through October 2007. However, Mexican DTOs will most likely undertake concerted efforts to reestablish their supply chain, and because cocaine production in South America appears to be stable or increasing, cocaine availability could return to normal levels during late 2007 and early 2008. …

Decreased cocaine availability continued into the second half of 2007, but recent reporting indicates that cocaine availability levels may be returning to normal levels in some markets.

If this prediction is correct and the U.S. street price of cocaine goes back down, it will be nothing new. Though the Drug Czar would have us believe otherwise, periodic spikes in cocaine prices are an old pattern.

In a must-read piece on the Washington Office on Latin America website, WOLA drug-policy expert John Walsh shows us just how old this pattern is.

According to cocaine price and purity estimates published by ONDCP [the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy] covering 1981 through mid-2003, there have in fact been four such previous instances: in 1981-1982 (when prices rose a cumulative 53 percent), 1990 (prices rose 55 percent), 1994-1995 (prices rose 39 percent), and 1999-2000 (prices rose 36 percent).

In these previous cases, cocaine’s retail price subsequently fell – over the course of the next five to nine quarters – to a level below that of the quarter immediately preceding the three consecutive quarterly increases. In other words, within a year or two, all four of the previously detected cocaine price increases comparable or greater than the current spike had been fully reversed. In all these cases, prices ended lower than before the increases began.

John Walters is the U.S. government’s top anti-drug official. Is he even reading the reports that the U.S. government produces?

Nov 09

The editorial-writers at the Washington Post are usually a politically moderate bunch, but when the topic is Latin America they move to the right of Attila the Hun. Worse, they get sloppy, embarrassing themselves with ad hominem attacks and “straw man” arguments.

These pieces do a lot of damage, though, because they are widely read among Washington decisionmakers who, by and large, also pay little attention to Latin America.

We have two examples from the past three days.

On Wednesday, they had this to say about “Plan Mexico,” the supplemental aid request that the Bush administration sent to Congress last month.

Almost all of the funds would cover the cost of training police or supplying planes, helicopters, detection equipment for use by customs and communications gear. Mexican officials say that none of the U.S. aid would be in cash and that no new U.S. personnel would be deployed in Mexico.

The package nevertheless will probably become a target for leftists in Mexico and the United States who reflexively oppose any military or security collaboration between the two countries.

As we have pointed out, military and police aid do not make up “almost all” of the funds in the Mexico aid request. (This is what we mean by sloppy.) Such aid is just over half of the dollar amount, and nearly all of that amount is taken up by eight helicopters and two planes. Much of what is in the package – port scanning equipment, judicial strengthening assistance – makes perfect sense.

We know a lot of people whom the Post editorialists would consider to be “leftists,” and very few of them have any problem with a U.S.-Mexican partnership against organized crime. Of course we should have a discussion about whether the Mexican Army is the best tool for the job, about the missing U.S. response on drug treatment, money-laundering and cross-border gun control, and about whether some of the money going to those expensive helicopters might be put to better use on other priorities. Those who “reflexively” support the proposed aid package should be prepared to participate in this more nuanced discussion.

Today (Friday), the Post launched a spirited defense of the Colombia free trade agreement, repeating many of the talking points coming out of the Colombian government’s lobby firms (the murder rate of labor unionists is lower than the overall murder rate, et cetera). While CIP has not been a major participant in the free-trade debate, we found the first sentence cited here to be repugnant and offensive.

To make them wait indefinitely while Colombian authorities go through cold-case files would be to substitute some Americans’ priorities for those of the Colombian voters who reelected Mr. Uribe last year with over 60 percent of the vote. The United States should not write Mr. Uribe a blank check, but the appropriate means of pressuring him already exist in human rights conditions Congress has attached to Colombia’s military aid packages.

What the Post dismissively, repellently, calls “cold-case files” are the whole point. When the trail goes cold on nearly 99 percent of union-member killings, then we have no guarantee that the recent decline in these killings is going to last. If such killings are virtually certain to go unpunished, they can resume at any time.

One can even argue that a country that doesn’t punish union-member killings has an unfair competitive advantage over a country that does punish such killings. Wages and benefits will always be worse in a country where to bargain collectively is to risk being killed with impunity. Progress on punishing labor cases should be a sine qua non condition for U.S. ratification of the FTA.

Or could it be that the Washington Post editorialists have happened upon a magic formula for conflict resolution? Why don’t the Arabs and Israelis, the Albanians and Serbs, the Cubans in Miami and Havana just forget about those “cold case files” from the past, the same way that the Post expects thousands of slain unionists’ family members and former colleagues to move on?

And why don’t those victims and their U.S. advocates get out of the way of the more than 60 percent of Colombians who voted for Uribe? Does the Post editorial board believe the same logic applies to regime opponents in Venezuela (62 percent for Chávez in December 2006) and Bolivia (53 percent for Morales in December 2005)?

As for the human-rights conditions on U.S. aid, which the Washington Post editorial regards to be an “appropriate means of pressure”? A Post editorial in May criticized those conditions’ principal congressional proponent, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), for “reflexively resist[ing] U.S. military aid to Latin America.”

“Reflexively” – there’s that word again. And it’s an appropriate one. Where Latin America policy is concerned, the Post editorial-writers’ reflex is to defend the status quo, no matter how unsatisfactory it may be. The search for a better policy would be better served by reason and reflection, not reflexes.

Nov 07

Colombian journalist Hollman Morris, producer of the critically acclaimed program “Contravía” and winner of Human Rights Watch’s 2007 Human Rights Defender Award, was in Washington on October 30. Here is a quick video from a conversation with him during his visit.

Nov 07

Over the weekend, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced that at least one member of the FARC Secretariat (Iván Márquez) was in Caracas to begin talks about a possible hostages-for-prisoners exchange.

Last week, Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba, whom Colombian President Álvaro Uribe authorized to be a facilitator for such talks, was in Washington. I turned on the camera for a small portion of our conversation; here is a brief video.