Dec 29

Here is a quick overview of what happened in Colombia and Latin America during 2007. Best wishes for a happy – and better – 2008.


Newly re-inaugurated Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announces his intention to re-nationalize key businesses in his country’s telecommunications, oil and electricity sectors.

The congress, made up completely of Chávez supporters thanks to an opposition boycott of parliamentary elections, gives the president the power to rule by decree for 18 months.

Salvatore Mancuso becomes the first top Colombian paramilitary leader to give a “confession” as part of the right-wing militias’ demobilization process. He prepares a grim PowerPoint presentation explaining his role in 336 murders and kidnappings.

Gunmen in Montería, Córdoba kill Yolanda Izquierdo, leader of a group of campesinos who had organized to claim land that they allege Mancuso stole from them.


Colombian President Álvaro Uribe says that political opponents who are demobilized guerrilla leaders – some of whom want to investigate claims that Uribe had past ties to paramilitary groups – “have simply gone from being terrorists in camouflage to terrorists in business suits.”

Colombian polls show Uribe’s approval rating near all-time highs.


President George Bush pays a visit to Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Brazil, and Uruguay. The President has little new to offer on his trip, however, other than words about the importance of regional partnerships. A month earlier, his 2008 budget request to Congress called for a reduction in U.S. assistance to the hemisphere.

The visit fails to usher in a new era of engagement and cooperation with Latin America and the Caribbean, or to make the region either a top foreign-policy priority or a fixture on the front pages of U.S. newspapers.

The U.S. Justice Department fines Chiquita Brands $25 million for making $1.7 million in extortion payments to AUC paramilitaries in Colombia over a period of several years.

To their (very small) credit, Chiquita executives voluntarily provided U.S. authorities with information about these payments. No other fruit company operating in the same regions – either domestic or international – has admitted to paying a cent to Colombian terrorist groups.


Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore refuses to appear at an environmental event in Miami where he would share the stage with Colombian President Álvaro Uribe. Gore’s office cites concerns about the “para-politics” scandal as the reason for the snub.

Colombian polls show Uribe’s approval rating near all-time highs.

Continue reading »

Dec 21
  • First, apologies for the relative lack of posts during the past week or so. We’ve been making lots of improvements to what will soon be the new “Just the Facts” U.S. aid-monitoring site. We’re about a month away from launch. (Old versionNew version; comments are welcome.)

If you ever wanted to know, for instance, how much counter-drug aid went to Central America between 2002 and 2005, you can now find that out. (It’s $52.4 million, $25.6 of it for Panama – view it by country or by aid program.)

  • Old, unresolved human-rights cases have been dominating the news throughout the region.
    • Mexico commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Acteal massacre in Chiapas.
    • In Argentina, two notorious officers already found guilty of past human-rights abuses were sent from military to civilian prisons. One, Alfredo Astiz, was the subject of an entire chapter of Tina Rosenberg’s now-classic 1992 study, Children of Cain.
    • Prosecutors finished a round of questioning of former Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori.
    • Gen. Gregorio Álvarez, Uruguay’s last dictator, was sent to prison.
    • Back in Colombia, Semana magazine’s María Teresa Ronderos reviews the paramilitary leadership’s confessions of past crimes during 2007.
  • Don’t miss Álvaro Vargas Llosa’s interview with a testy Álvaro Uribe in The New Republic.

Another argument used by Democrats in the U.S. Congress, and even some Republicans–that there has been a rise in coca plantations–makes Uribe defensive: “If that’s what they believe, then let them scrap Plan Colombia. The U.S. government said that last year we had 150,000 hectares of coca, but the United Nations said we had 79,000. Why don’t they learn to measure? We have extradited more than 700 criminals to the United States. What more do they want?”

  • Two articles point to recent official abuse of the “terrorist” label in Latin America. The Nation tells the story of Salvadoran activists being rounded up and arrested on “terrorism” charges, which promise long sentences. EFE updates on a 65-day-old hunger strike by Mapuche Indians imprisoned on terrorism charges in Chile.The Nation piece had this chilling quote about El Salvador’s president, Tony Saca.

If the United States has learned to be more hands-off in its relations with El Salvador, President Saca draws a very different lesson from history. In a May 7 speech, he offered an example for today’s armed forces to emulate in the “war on terror”: Col. Domingo Monterrosa, the commander who led the massacre at El Mozote. “Colonel Monterrosa,” Saca said without irony, “knew how to defend the nation, with nobility, in the saddest moment of the Republic.”

  • Spain’s most-circulated newspaper, El País, ran a fascinating article on Sunday entitled “The FARC’s Narco-Sanctuary,” alleging that “certain Venezuelan authorities offer the FARC extensive and systematic cooperation with their narco-trafficking activities.” Deserters and other sources contend that combat between the FARC and ELN is happening “daily” within Venezuela, that 30% of the world’s cocaine now passes through Venezuela, and that the guerrillas have held hostage Íngrid Betancourt in Venezuelan territory.
  • I had missed this before, but recommend this October article in Guatemala’s La Prensa Libre. It discusses the situation of former Kaibiles – members of an elite Guatemalan Army unit with a terrible human-rights record – serving as contract employees in Iraq.

Best wishes to all for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Dec 19

Reps. Gregory Meeks (D-New York), William Delahunt (D-Massachusetts) and Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) talking to (mostly Colombian) reporters earlier today.

In a speech on Sunday in Medellín, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe leveled a strange accusation.

I’m worried about some national and international politicians who recommend to the FARC that they don’t accept [President Uribe’s proposed 150-square-kilometer “encounter zone” for prisoner-exchange talks between the guerrillas and the government]; that the only way is a full demilitarized zone [the 800 square-kilometer, two-county zone that the FARC has demanded as a pre-condition for such talks].

And I say so because I have learned this week, to my sadness, that some politicians have been making this recommendation to the FARC. They tell them, “No. Don’t accept that. Someone will intervene with Sarkozy to pressure Uribe.”

… [Other politicians] are saying to the FARC: “No. Set a gringo free. Free a gringo and that way we can pressure Uribe to demilitarize an entire zone.”

Who was he talking about? In an interview with Colombia’s Caracol radio network this morning, he offered another clue – one pointing to Washington: the culprit is “a low-ranking politician” in the United States.

What? Who in the world of Washington politics would possibly be doing something as ridiculous as advising the FARC to insist on a full demilitarized zone?

The Colombian newsmagazine Semana speculated today that the most obvious candidate for Uribe’s ire would be Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, who has been one of the members of Congress most interested in the efforts to win freedom for the FARC’s hostages.

Of all [Democrats], the one who has the most relations with hostage relatives, and who has most often shown interest in their liberation, is McGovern, a congressman whose power is less than that of other very recognized legislators like Charles Rangel and Nancy Pelosi.

If Uribe is indeed thinking of McGovern, he is flat wrong. Why would Jim McGovern advise the FARC to take a position that isn’t his? The same Semana article explains, “[McGovern's] concern is for the freedom of the kidnapped people, and he knows well that demanding a full demilitarized zone would totally obstruct the process.”

As I understand it, during his contacts with Sen. Piedad Córdoba – the Colombian government-appointed “facilitator” for prisoner-exchange talks between August and November – Mr. McGovern never supported demilitarizing the entire municipalities of Florida and Pradera. Neither he nor any of the other Democratic congresspeople who have been in contact with Sen. Córdoba were thrilled about the idea.

The Democratic congresspeople who signed a letter in March offering to help the process were endorsing a European proposal for a much smaller zone – a proposal that President Uribe also supported. It makes no sense, then, for any of them to have advised the guerrillas to do anything to “pressure” President Uribe into accepting a proposal they don’t support themselves.

Continue reading »

Dec 17

The 2008 foreign aid bill has emerged from a House-Senate Conference Committee as part of a huge consolidated budget bill made public this morning.

Here is our best estimate of what Colombia aid will look like next year. Recall that (1) the Bush administration requested that 76% of Colombia aid in the Foreign Operations funding bill be military and police aid; (2) the House reduced that proportion to 55% in June; and (3) the Senate reduced it to 63% in September.

The final bill calls for $545.6 million in aid to Colombia next year, $44 million less than the Bush administration requested. This outlay would be 56.6% military and police aid, a proportion that more closely resembles the House bill.

Military and police aid would be reduced by $141.5 million below the Bush administration’s request, a 31 percent cut. Economic and social aid, including large increases for Colombia’s justice system, would be increased by $97.4 million above the Bush administration’s request, a 70 percent increase.

Foreign Operations Aid Only

2007, estimate

2008, White House request

2008, House version

2008, Senate version

2008, Conference

Military and Police Assistance






Andean Programs / Andean Counterdrug Initiative






Foreign Military Financing






NADR – Anti-Terrorism Assistance






International Military Education and Training






NADR – Humanitarian Demining






NADR – Small Arms and Light Weapons






International Narcotics Control and Law Enf.






Economic and Social Assistance 132,250,000





Andean Programs / Andean Counterdrug Initiative






International Narcotics Control and Law Enf.






Economic Support Fund






Total Foreign Operations Aid 594,920,000 589,710,000 530,642,000 570,748,000 545,608,000

However, there is more military aid than appears here. The above table includes only aid within the Foreign Operations budget bill. We know that in 2006, Colombia received about $133 million in additional military aid through the Defense Department budget bill. Were Colombia to receive a similar amount in 2007 and 2008, the proportions would be much more lopsided toward military aid.

Nonetheless, all aid to Colombia in 2008 would be 65 percent military under the new legislation, where it would have been 81 percent military had the Bush administration’s request gone through unchanged.

Foreign Operations and Defense Aid

2007, estimate

2008, White House request

2008, House version

2008, Senate version

2008, Conference

Military and Police Assistance






Economic and Social Assistance 132,250,000





Total Aid, All Sources 727,900,000 722,690,000 663,622,000 703,728,000 678,588,000

Human rights conditions, which applied to 25 percent of military aid in the past, now apply to 30 percent, though their language is largely unchanged.

The conference committee’s report mandates the following earmarks for Colombia aid:

  • $196 million in Economic Support Funds must pay for USAID programs in Colombia.
  • At least $20 million in International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) funds must go to the Office of the Prosecutor-General (Fiscalía):
    • $5,000,000 for the Human Rights Unit
    • $5,000,000 for the Justice and Peace Unit
    • $7,000,000 to develop a witness protection program for victims of armed groups
    • $3,000,000 for investigations of mass graves and identification of remains
  • $8 million in INL funds must go for human rights activities
  • $5.5 million in INL funds must go for judicial reform
  • $3 million in INL funds must go to the Procuraduría
  • $2 million in INL funds must go to the Defensoria del Pueblo
  • $750,000 in INL funds must go to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia
  • $5 million in Foreign Military Financing funds must go to medical and rehabilitation assistance, removal of landmines, and communications capabilities.
Dec 13

El Nuevo Herald reporter Gerardo Reyes.

El Nuevo Herald, the Spanish-language sister paper of The Miami Herald, has performed some of the most aggressive investigative reporting about narcotraffickers’ and paramilitaries’ power in Colombia. While its editorial board has been fiercely supportive of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, the rest of the paper has worked assiduously to reveal uncomfortable truths about Uribe, his associations, and his past as a rising politician in cartel-dominated 1980s Medellín.

Most of this is the work of two veteran El Nuevo Herald reporters, Gerardo Reyes and Gonzalo Guillén. Both are Colombian. In part because they are associated with a U.S.-based newspaper whose editors give them backing, they have been able to carry out investigations into topics that most Colombian journalists would find very uncomfortable.

The work of both reveals a deep suspicion about Álvaro Uribe’s background. “Bombs are exploding all around Uribe and some shrapnel has hit him,” Reyes told the Colombian newsmagazine Cambio in November. “But there is nothing strong enough to place his credibility in question. Since no direct link with the paramilitaries has so far been demonstrated, the United States has not begun to exert pressure.”

Guillén, meanwhile, has probed more deeply into President Uribe’s past than almost any other reporter, including allegations that, upon his father’s murder by FARC guerrillas in 1983, Uribe tried to reach the zone in a helicopter belonging to Pablo Escobar. These investigations attracted Uribe’s notice, according to an October article in the Miami New Times weekly.

In 2003, he says, he received an unexpected call from the president. “He said he had copies of several e-mails that I had sent to people and that he didn’t like the investigation I was doing,” Guillén remembers. “People from the [American] embassy that I knew told me these calls were really threatening and dangerous. And a secretary of the government named Moreno told me that I was really in danger.”

Reyes, who works out of Miami, has broken many stories about paramilitary groups’ infiltration of Colombia’s state, implicating many officials close to Uribe. He is one of few reporters to have interviewed Rafael García, a jailed former official of the presidential intelligence service, the DAS. García has become a star witness in several so-called “para-politics” criminal investigations, including one against his former boss, Jorge Noguera, who allegedly worked closely with top paramilitary leaders while heading Uribe’s DAS for over three years. The New Times recounts an April 2007 confrontation between President Uribe and Reyes.

In April, speaking before journalists from around the world at the Ritz-Carlton in Coconut Grove, Uribe castigated Guillén’s colleague, El Nuevo Herald investigative reporter Gerardo Reyes, for asking about the paramilitary ties.

The scene was otherworldly weird, Reyes says — a president who follows the press too closely. “He began reciting each story I had written,” Reyes recalls. “He was furious, and he was looking right at me. Everyone turned around to look. It was very uncomfortable.”

In May of this year, Guillén raised the stakes, publishing a book, Pablo Escobar’s Confidants, alleging that the Uribe family had links to the drug trade. This clearly enraged President Uribe, who singled out Guillén in October when Pablo Escobar’s ex-girlfriend, Virginia Vallejo, published a separate book including allegations that Escobar was quite fond of the young Uribe.

On October 2, Uribe told a Bogotá radio program, “Behind this woman [Vallejo] is Gonzalo Guillén, who has dedicated his journalistic career to slander and lies.” Guillén, who said he had not even read Vallejo’s book, was forced to leave Colombia after receiving about two dozen threats and having one of his two DAS bodyguards inexplicably removed.

“I got a call at my home … a guy said, ‘We can kill you,’” Guillén told the Miami New Times. “Then the threats started coming fast. Five calls at my home, e-mails, 24 death threats in 48 hours. I was afraid for me, for my family. I left the country in a sprint.”

Continue reading »

Dec 12

We don’t have much nice to say about a politician who introduces legislation every year “To end membership of the United States in the United Nations.”

But it definitely takes guts – if not a suicidal impulse – get in front of a crowd of Miami Republican activists and say what Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) said during Sunday’s Univision candidates’ debate (PDF):

MODERATOR: It’s the presidential forum, the Republican one. We’re going to talk about something else. Now we’re going to talk about Latin America. A week ago, exactly a week ago, Venezuela rejected changes to the constitution, but the president, Hugo Chavez…


President Hugo Chavez has insisted that he’s going to propose them again. Many consider him a threat to democracy in the region. If you were elected president, how would you deal with Chavez? Let’s start with Congressman John Paul — Ron Paul, sorry.

PAUL: Well, he’s not the easiest person to deal with, but we should deal with everybody around the world the same way: with friendship and opportunity to talk and try to trade with people.


PAUL: We talked to — we talked to Stalin, we talked to Khrushchev, we’ve talked to Mao, and we’ve talked to the world, and we get along with people.

PAUL: Actually, I believe we’re at a time where we even ought to talk to Cuba and trade and travel to Cuba.



But let me — let me tell you — let me tell you why — let me tell you why we have a problem in South America and Central America: because we’ve been involved in their internal affairs for so long. We have been meddling in their business.


We create the Chavezes of the world, we create the Castros of the world by interfering and creating chaos in their countries, and they respond by throwing out their leader.


Dec 10

I strongly recommend taking the time to read Ben Wallace-Wells’ phenomenal 15,000-word piece on “How America Lost the War on Drugs,”in the current issue of Rolling Stone magazine.

Yes, Rolling Stone is principally a music magazine, one whose tastes may not be your own. (They actually claim that Bob Dylan and the Red Hot Chili Peppers made the two best albums of 2006.) But the magazine occasionally publishes some excellent investigative work, and this is a great example. Slate Editor Jack Shafer is absolutely right to call Wallace-Wells’ article “the smartest drug story of the year.”

It is based on months of interviews with people involved in all aspects of U.S. drug policy. Its conclusions are devastating.

This is the story of how that momentary success turned into one of the most sustained and costly defeats the United States has ever suffered. It is the story of how the most powerful country on Earth, sensing a piñata, swung to hit it and missed. …

All told, the United States has spent an estimated $500 billion to fight drugs – with very little to show for it. Cocaine is now as cheap as it was when [Pablo] Escobar died and more heavily used. Methamphetamine, barely a presence in 1993, is now used by 1.5 million Americans and may be more addictive than crack. We have nearly 500,000 people behind bars for drug crimes – a twelvefold increase since 1980 – with no discernible effect on the drug traffic. Virtually the only success the government can claim is the decline in the number of Americans who smoke marijuana – and even on that count, it is not clear that federal prevention programs are responsible.

Even though CIP’s work on Colombia has made me a critic of the drug war for a long time now, Wallace-Wells uncovers many pieces of the drug-war narrative that I didn’t know about. Here are a few excerpts showing a few things I learned – but if you have time, do read the entire article instead.

1. Serious studies of how to fight the United States’ drug problem, based on years of data collection, began in the mid-1990s. Even when carried out by “conservative” think-tanks, these studies pointed in a very different direction from the current policy: treatment of addicts at home. But they were ignored.

[A]fter [Pablo] Escobar was killed in 1993 – and after U.S. drug agents began systematically busting up the Colombian cartels – doubt was replaced with hard data. Thanks to new research, U.S. policy-makers knew with increasing certainty what would work and what wouldn’t. The tragedy of the War on Drugs is that this knowledge hasn’t been heeded. …

[President Clinton’s first “drug czar,” Lee] Brown’s staff became intrigued by a new study on drug policy from the RAND Corp., the Strangelove-esque think tank that during the Cold War had employed mathematicians to crank out analyses for the Pentagon. Like Lockheed Martin, the jet manufacturer that had turned to managing welfare reform after the Cold War ended, RAND was scouting for other government projects that might need its brains. It found the drug war. The think tank assigned Susan Everingham, a young expert in mathematical modeling, to help run the group’s signature project: dividing up the federal government’s annual drug budget of $13 billion into its component parts and deciding what worked and what didn’t when it came to fighting cocaine.

Continue reading »

Dec 07

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe announced a few hours ago that he would pull security forces from a 150-square-kilometer zone in order to hold hostage-for-prisoner exchange negotiations with the FARC guerrillas. Based on a proposal by the Catholic Church, this zone would have a presence of international observers, and FARC members participating in the talks “should” be unarmed.

Early news reports are portraying this as a breakthrough, and we hope that it is. We hope that the FARC accepts it, the haggling over pre-conditions ends, and the two sides get to the negotiating table.

However, we note that Uribe’s proposal resembles a plan that the Spanish, Swiss and French governments put forward in late 2005. The European proposal called for a 180-square-kilometer zone, international observers, and neither side carrying any weapons.

The European plan was, and is, a good proposal. President Uribe accepted it at the time, in December 2005. But the FARC never gave its assent. The guerrillas have stuck to their original bargaining position: an 800-square-kilometer zone, the entire area of Florida and Pradera municipalities near Cali, in the southwestern Colombian department of Valle del Cauca. In this zone, the guerrillas have made clear their desire to be the only armed presence.

The Colombian government has treated this guerrilla pre-condition as though it were an initial negotiating position, one that would be softened after a period of back-and-forth bargaining. The FARC, however, has softened its terms only once, in 2004, when it chose Florida and Pradera after initially requesting a larger territory in the department of Caquetá. Since then, it has rigidly clung to its pre-conditions.

Will the FARC seize the opportunity President Uribe offered today? Only if they show flexibility on two points:

  • The size of the zone: Instead of two entire municipalities of 800 square kilometers, complete with small towns, Uribe is offering 150 entirely rural square kilometers.
  • Weapons: The FARC have insisted on appearing at any negotiation with their rifles at the ready. They claim that this is necessary for their own security, though the symbolic value – “this is how much we distrust Colombia’s ruling class” – is also great.

There is some chance that the FARC may accept a smaller zone. If the past is any guide, though, the second condition – their weapons – may pose the greater challenge.

Semana magazine’s coverage of Uribe’s announcement indicates that the president may be prepared to yield a bit on the weapons question.

He indicated that “there would be a presence of international observers, and those present there to define the issue of a humanitarian exchange should not be armed [no deberían estar armados].” The use of the conditional tense for the issue of weapons is important because before, Uribe had always been categorical and unyielding in rejecting the presence of armed guerrillas.

Today’s proposal is cause for modest optimism. But it is not a breakthrough unless the guerrillas break with their custom and give ground on these two points.

Dec 05

Luis Carlos Restrepo, the Colombian government’s “high commissioner for peace”

Yesterday morning, Colombia’s media were reporting that the Colombian government’s peace commissioner, Luis Carlos Restrepo, was en route to Paris to offer French President Nicolas Sarkozy a greater role in mediating a hostage-for-prisoner exchange with the FARC. The Colombian government, likely rattled by the alarming proofs-of-life made public last Friday, was reportedly ready to offer Sarkozy a direct meeting with FARC leaders.

Restrepo did not end up boarding a plane yesterday. In fact, the French were not anxious to see him, or the FARC, right away. “Le «Monsieur Paix» d’Uribe ne vient pas en France,” reads today’s edition of the French daily Le Figaro.

“This demands a little reflection,” a French Presidency spokesperson said yesterday. “We must take some time to reflect and see what the best strategy is.” The spokesperson added that Sarkozy does not want to “rush into every door that opens up,” and that he “does not intend to find himself being instrumentalized” – that is, used. One senses a note of bitterness about the collapse of the Hugo Chávez – Piedad Córdoba facilitation effort, which France actively supported.

For his part, Restrepo announced yesterday that “he had been given permission to hold direct talks with Farc representatives.” It is not clear, though, why this is news. As the government’s high commissioner for peace, or “le Monsieur Paix,” that is simply Restrepo’s job. But the FARC don’t appear to want to talk to Restrepo either.

Five days after the world awoke to the harrowing new images of the FARC hostages, it is clearer than ever that the effort to free them is horribly stuck. Perhaps the French are right: this is a moment for “reflection.”

Any reflection should be guided by the following two readings.

The first is hostage Íngrid Betancourt’s letter to her mother, a painfully sad, beautifully written document that was included among the proofs-of-life captured last Friday. If you read Spanish, skip this and read the entire 4,200-word letter from the former senator and presidential candidate on the website of Semana magazine. It is a moving document, not just for the brutal descriptions of the conditions in which Ms. Betancourt has been living, but because of her gratitude toward those who have not forgotten the hostages, and her barely concealed anger at those who would readily sacrifice them for political objectives.

The second is a translation of another brilliant piece from Claudia López, an investigator and columnist for El Tiempo, who puts things in bleak, but maddeningly correct, perspective.

Dec 05

Ingrid Betancourt’s letter to her mother, Yolanda Pulecio (excerpts)

Rainy morning, like my soul, jungles of Colombia, Wednesday, October 24, 8:34 AM

My adored and divine mother of my soul.

Every day I wake up thanking God that I have you.

Every day I open my eyes at 4:00 AM and prepare myself to be wide awake to hear your message on la cantera de las 5 [a radio program]. … Every day, you ask me how my life is. I know that [Jhon Frank] Pinchao [a police officer who escaped from the FARC in May, after 9 years of captivity] gave you many details, and I bless him and thank him for having told you everything. …

Well, things have gotten harder for us since Pinchao’s escape. The measures became more extreme, and this has been terrible for me. They separated me from the people with whom I had relationships, affinity and affection, and they put me in with a very difficult group of people.

Mamita, I am tired, tired of suffering, I have been – or tried to be – strong. These almost six years of captivity have shown me that I am not as resistant, nor as brave, intelligent or strong as I had believed. I have had many battles, I have tried to escape at several opportunities, I have tried to maintain hope, as one keeps one’s head above water. But mamita, now I have given up. I want to think that one day I’ll get out of here, but I know that what happened to the diputados [the eleven provincial legislators, held hostage since 2002, who were killed in June], which hurt me greatly, could happen to me at any moment. I think this would be a relief for everyone. …

Mamita, this is a very hard moment for me. They are asking for proofs of life at point-blank range, and here I am writing to you with my soul laid out over this paper. I am in poor shape physically. I have not been eating. My appetite is blocked. My hair is falling out in large quantities. I have no desire to do anything. I think that last one is the only good one: not wanting to do anything. Because here in the jungle, the only response is “NO.” It is better, then, not to want anything, to be free, at least, of desires. …

Well, as I said, life here is not life. It is a gloomy waste of time. I live, or survive, in a hammock hanging from two poles, covered with mosquito netting and a tarpaulin overhead, which serves as a roof, which allows me to think that I have a house. I have a shelf where I keep my equipment, that is my backpack with clothes and a Bible that is my only luxury. Everything is always ready in case we have to run off. Here nothing is one’s own, nothing lasts, the uncertainty and precariousness are the only constant. At any moment they give the order to pack and one sleeps in any hole, hanging in any site, like any animal. Those moments are especially difficult for me. … Continue reading »

Dec 05

Don’t give up. We are with you,” by Claudia López, El Tiempo, December 4, 2007

Several things have become clear from the evolution of what until now we called “the Humanitarian Accord.” There will be no Accord, nor will it be Humanitarian. Before the FARC’s criminal and inhumane capacities, the only road to recover the hostages alive is through a political negotiation. The Colombian government will not allow any political negotiation, and it sabotaged the one that Venezuela was carrying out. In consequence, the hostages will keep dying in the jungle as long as the FARC are the captors and Álvaro Uribe is president of Colombia. Perhaps Íngrid Betancourt will be freed, because France is willing to carry out a political negotiation and the Colombian government is interested in getting out from under French pressure. If France does not manage to recover Íngrid, it will be because of a FARC deception and/or a new Colombian government sabotage of a political negotiation.

Piedad Córdoba’s and President Chávez’s efforts achieved in four months what the Colombian government was unable to achieve in six years. The poorly named “Peace Commissioner” has been unable to establish direct communication with the FARC Secretariat, or to have a meeting with a negotiator authorized by them, or to set up a plan for reaching an accord, or to involve other countries in the negotiation, or to obtain proofs of life for the hostages, or to gain a commitment to free some as a step toward a political negotiation to free the rest. That others – different from the Colombian government – have achieved this in four months demonstrates that it is possible to achieve it if one has will and clarity that a political negotiation is taking place. A political negotiation that will bring the benefit of a liberation of living hostages, and carry the cost of a political “oxygenation” for the FARC.

The government, which has neither the will nor the negotiating capacity, ended these efforts because they ran the risk of being successful. If they achieved what they had negotiated, they would have made evident that it was a lack of political will and negotiating capacity on the part of the government – and not just the criminal and inhumane stubbornness of the FARC – that had impeded the Accord. For that reason, the efforts were gradually sabotaged by the government. First, by making communications and meetings with facilitators more difficult; later, by imposing new conditions (the government started out by reiterating that it would not give territorial or military advantages, and ended up adding that it would not allow political “protagonism” either); afterward, by calling an end to the facilitation in a way that would best assure that it would be inviable to resume it in the future; later, by intensifying military operations to make difficult the sending of the proofs of life; and, finally, intercepting them so that they would not arrive in the facilitators’ hands, and jailing their messengers as terrorists.

Trust between the parties, of course, has been thrown to the floor. Relations with Venezuela are in critical condition. Chávez knows that they used him. The FARC, who have always insisted that the government wants no accord and only seeks military advantages to kill them, ended up with more reasons to confirm this position. Just as the FARC have lied so many times, at this opportunity it was evident that the government has lied to all those to whom it said that it is willing to seek an accord. The government has never had any will to enter into a political negotiation. It has managed the situation and allowed intermediaries to participate in order to diminish international pressure, trusting that one after another would burn out, with its own help. All the while seeking to liberate or kill the hostages militarily, in operations whose political cost would be borne completely by the FARC and not the government, which means that this would be more politically convenient for them than any negotiation. These crude lessons are those that we have to have in mind from this point forward.

To all the hostages and their families, my total solidarity and my certainty that, though we are a minority, we will keep struggling, without rest, for their lives and liberty.

Dec 04

Sindy Tumay was arrested late Thursday with proofs-of-life for the FARC’s hostages in her possession. Military intelligence agents had followed her from remote Guaviare department.

“The proofs of life were hidden by Álvaro Uribe’s government so that we could not bring them to President Sarkozy.”

That is what Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba, who until November 21 was an officially authorized mediator for the FARC prisoner-exchange talks, told an interviewer from the Mexican daily El Universal. In a piece published this weekend, Córdoba made the very serious allegation that the Uribe government sought to undermine the mediators by intercepting the videos and photos of many FARC hostages, which it then made public on November 30. Sen. Córdoba implies that President Uribe knew that the proofs-of-life existed a week earlier, which influenced his decision to put an end to the role that she and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez were playing in the talks.

The Colombian government denies this, of course. “I don’t know what Piedad Córdoba’s interest might be, or whether she is having hallucinations,” said the head of Colombia’s armed forces, Gen. Freddy Padilla.

Sen. Córdoba does appear to have some of the facts wrong. But what did the Colombian government know, and when did it know it? Could it be possible that President Uribe pulled the plug on a promising negotiation process because he feared a handover of proofs-of-life at an event in Caracas – an event that would give the FARC momentary access to top foreign diplomats and perhaps even U.S. members of Congress?

We really hope not. But consider this hypothesis, from Sunday’s edition of the Colombian newsweekly Semana.

The interception of the proofs of life was an intelligence operation that was very precisely planned and executed. All data indicate that Sindy Yuley [the guerrilla courier whom troops apprehended late Thursday night] was followed for a long time, at a distance of few meters, day and night. It is admirable that the military managed to follow her from the town of Tomachipán, in [the southern province of] Guaviare, to Meta and later to Bogotá, without losing her trail or that of the proofs. Although the authorities deny that they knew what her mission was, it is evident that they waited with a watchmaker’s patience, until she met with her contact from Caracas.

… But if the capture was precise, so is the political chessgame at play behind it. If military intelligence had knowledge of the proofs of life more than a week ago, it is possible that President Álvaro Uribe already knew of their existence at the moment he suspended the mediation of President Hugo Chávez and Senator Piedad Córdoba, on November 21. It is quite probable that, as Uribe himself said, the political calculations that the goverment made by nominating these mediators had failed. With [FARC leader] Iván Márquez soaking up press attention in Caracas without having made any substantial humanitarian gesture, and with Chávez far too talkative, the scenario became too complicated for the government.

That is why Piedad Córdoba’s and Chávez’s phone call to [Army Chief] Gen. Mario Montoya, which triggered the breakdown of their mediation, apparently gave the government the opportunity it needed to shut things down.

The hypothesis that Uribe knew that the proofs were already on the way explains Chávez’s disproprortionate fury. As well as the intention that he apparently had this [past] weekend – with the relatives of the hostages in Caracas and certainly with the proofs – of showing that the FARC were indeed moving toward the exchange.

This morning’s news reports that the Uribe government is seeking to give a bigger role to French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Can yet another disappointing outcome possibly be avoided? We can only cross our fingers.

Dec 03

A question for any historians out there: are there other examples of a leader seeking near-dictatorial powers through democratic means, then losing and quickly conceding defeat?

Augusto Pinochet in 1989 is the only example that comes to mind, and it is not an apt analogy for yesterday’s outcome in Venezuela, since the Chilean general already had dictatorial powers.

Even Hugo Chávez’s strongest critics owe him at least a bit of praise today, however grudging, for so rapidly acknowledging the failure at the ballot box of his attempt to expand powers through a series of constitutional reforms.

This morning’s outcome – a 49-to-51-percent defeat – certainly weakens Chávez politically. But it is also a blow to the chorus of analysts who had declared democracy and insitutionality to be dead in Venezuela (many of whom supported a decidedly undemocratic coup attempt in April 2002).

“True enough, Chávez was elected, but he has since used his power to rig the electoral apparatus and rob it of all credibility,” one of those critics, former Bush administration Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, wrote last week. “He has made democratic change impossible and peaceful dissent useless, so it should come as no surprise when demonstrations turn deadly and elections are utterly discredited.”

Mr. Noriega’s sentences are almost amusing this morning. It appears that Venezuela’s electoral apparatus still has some credibility left.

Instead, the referendum’s result is a victory for those in Venezuela who resist the political polarization that has consumed their country. People who say they support much of what Chávez has tried to do for the poorest Venezuelans, but who could not support the new direction signaled by the constitutional reforms. People like Gen. Raúl Isaías Baduel, Chávez’s former defense minister; the leaders of the student movement; and leaders of social-democratic political organizations that have insisted on independence from the president’s “United Socialist Party of Venezuela.”

With the referendum going down to a narrow defeat, and with Chávez conceding quickly, Venezuela has just threaded a difficult needle. The country just avoided some potentially disastrous outcomes that seemed perfectly plausible yesterday. Had the results showed Chávez’s “yes” vote winning narrowly, the opposition would surely have cried fraud and taken to the streets, with bloody results. Had Chávez refused to accept the outcome, forcing weeks of re-counts amid explosive rallies and demonstrations, violence would also have been likely.

These scenarios, thankfully, appear to have been averted. The vote was close: Hugo Chávez certainly had an opportunity to insist on his victory, thereby proving right the critics who portray him as an authoritarian. But he didn’t take it.

Instead, Venezuela today awakened to the best possible outcome: a quick vote count, an evidently functioning set of electoral institutions, and – last but not least – defeat of a package of reforms that included some pretty bad ideas.

Caracas should breathe a sigh of relief this morning.