Jan 31

Judge Julio César Valencia.

Remember the “para-politics” scandal? (There are many in Colombia who hope that you don’t.) It took a very odd turn last week, as President Álvaro Uribe announced that he is pressing charges of slander against César Julio Valencia, who until two weeks ago was the chief justice of Colombia’s Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court is charged with investigating and prosecuting the more than 40 members of Colombia’s Congress alleged to have supported paramilitary groups. Among these legislators is President Uribe’s cousin, Mario Uribe.

In September, Álvaro Uribe called Judge Valencia on his cellphone. The president was enraged because a low-ranking imprisoned paramilitary leader nicknamed “Tasmania” had written him a letter alleging that Supreme Court investigators had sought to get him to give false evidence implicating Uribe.

Earlier this month, in an interview with the Colombian newspaper El Espectador, Valencia said that during the same conversation, President Uribe also asked about his cousin’s case.

President Uribe vehemently denies that he inquired about his cousin. Judge Valencia, whose term just ended, refuses to retract what he said. So President Uribe is now pressing charges against the outgoing supreme-court chief justice. The charge is slander, which is a criminal offense in Colombia.

A statement from the Polo Democrático, Colombia’s leftist opposition party, explains why Valencia will have little opportunity to defend himself, and why the truth about that telephone conversation is unlikely to emerge.

The only possible witnesses in the procedures are three high employees of the Uribe government. The trial will begin with the Prosecution Commission of the House of Representatives, an entity controlled entirely by the political friends of President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the very same people who systematically refuse to comply with the law when he is the accused and who constitute part of the bureaucratic apparatus that is also controlled by the head of state. Will there be justice for the President of the Supreme Court if the accuser, the witnesses, and the judges all share the same interests and belong to the same para-politician group under investigation by that Supreme Court?

Is President Uribe so distressed by this alleged smear on his record that he is willing to clash at such a high level with the judicial branch? Or is this an effort to distract and even to intimidate the Supreme Court, which has been taking seriously its duty to investigate and punish the dozens of Uribe supporters facing “para-politics” accusations?

Jan 31

This is what the room looked like when Piedad Córdoba, an opposition senator and former facilitator of prisoner-for-hostage talks with the FARC, spoke at the Inter-American Dialogue yesterday afternoon. I was only five minutes late, but the Dialogue’s conference room was already overflowing.

Even a year ago, it would have been inconceivable to see this level of interest in an event about the FARC hostage situation here in Washington. Leave aside the Venezuela factor and Sen. Córdoba’s controversial style. It is encouraging that interest in finding a solution to the hostage crisis has increased so much here.

Jan 30

A colleague just sent a copy of Balance Militar Suramericano (The South American Military Balance), a new document from the Bogotá-based Security and Democracy Foundation. It gives an interesting overview of the current sizes, capabilities and budgets of South America’s militaries, drawing much data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

(Right now, I can’t find the Balance Militar document on the foundation’s website. It bears no release date and may not be available for free. If it appears, I’ll add a link. Update as of 2/1: here it is as a PDF file.)

The report discusses the rapid military buildup that Colombia underwent over the past ten years, and includes much new data comparing Colombia with its South American neighbors. These include three surprising findings, presented here with translated excerpts from the report:

1. Colombia’s military (not counting police) expenditure is similar to Chile’s. Over the past ten years the two countries have alternated in second and third place – well behind Brazil – with military expenditure levels surpassing $4 billion per year, and approaching $5 billion. They are also similar as a proportion of the overall economy.

With respect to the assignation of military expenditures as a portion of GDP, Chile and Colombia are the countries that have most devoted their resources during the 1997-2005 period, with an average of 3.61 and 3.52 percent of GDP, respectively. Colombia is the country that has undergone the greater budgetary effort, moving from 2.9 percent in 1997 to 3.7 percent in 2005.

(By comparison, the U.S. defense budget, including the cost of the Iraq war, is roughly 4.3 percent of GDP [nearly $600 billion out of nearly $14 trillion].)

2. Since 2004, Colombia’s military expenditure has been growing more slowly than the South American average. Led by large new arms purchases in Chile, Venezuela, and Brazil – made possible by returns from high commodity prices – South American defense budgets have risen extremely rapidly since 2004.

Despite the current [Colombian] government’s commitment to sustaining a military budget in accord with the needs of armed forces involved in a sustained military campaign, budgeted military expenditures have shown the worst growth rate in the region, 3.70%, during the 2004-2006 period – far from the regional average calculated at 22.35%.

3. The sharpest increases in Colombian military spending took place not during Álvaro Uribe’s presidency, but during that of his predecessor, Andrés Pastrana. Colombian public opinion views Pastrana (president from 1998 to 2002) as a naïve peacenik whom the FARC duped into a failed negotiation while the country’s security situation went into a tailspin. In fact, while Pastrana was pursuing negotiations, his defense ministry and high command were overseeing a huge military buildup that included a big contribution from Washington: Plan Colombia.

On three occasions during the 1998-2002 period – 1998, 2000 and 2002 – the Colombian government approved military budget increases greater than 10%, more than double the average of the decade [1997-2006]. … It is with these resources that the Colombian government bought more than 12 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, Russian Mi-17 transport helicopters, and supported the modernization of its aircraft, riverine and land combat equipment, alongside the U.S. aid funding.

After 2002, the increase in military expenditure has been gradual, without showing – so far – any extraordinary budget increases, as indicated by the 8.65% increase in defense expenditure between the years 2003 and 2006, less than the peaks described during the 1998-2002 period. Despite this, at the end of 2005 the Colombian government carried out one of the most important purchases of military materiel in at least two decades, 25 Super Tucano [Brazilian] aircraft for close air support.

The document notes that with the Uribe government implementing new asset tax on the wealthy to fund the war, a new spike in Colombian military spending is likely for 2008.

Jan 28

In a movement apparently spawned by users of Facebook, millions of Colombians are expected to take to the country’s streets on February 4 to protest against the FARC guerrillas.

On its own, this is positive. After so many years of attacks on defenseless civilians in Colombia, the FARC should be made to feel the rejection of a critical mass of organized, energized fellow citizens. Though the guerrilla group is famously impervious to outside pressure or persuasion, perhaps a mass display of disapproval and rejection can have at least some impact on their morale, if not their behavior.

The march will be happening, though, in the midst of a strange, highly charged atmosphere within Colombia. While a display of outrage at the FARC is appropriate and well timed, the marchers and their organizers should avoid unintended consequences.

  • Don’t escalate the possibility of conflict with Venezuela. President Hugo Chávez is dead wrong to have called for giving the FARC political status in return for no change in the group’s atrocious behavior. He is even more wrong to be fanning the flames of conflict with Colombia by claiming that Washington and Bogotá are planning a military “provocation” against Venezuela. Hugo Chávez’s actions over the past two weeks are a key inspiration for the February 4 protest march.Marchers are free to say that Chávez is wrong and should stay out of Colombian affairs. But the march must not devolve into an expression of anti-Venezuelan sentiment. If the protests are filled with bellicose or warlike messages about Colombia’s neighbor, they will heighten tensions, taking both countries further in a disastrous direction in which neither truly wishes to go.
  • Don’t let it turn into a pro-Uribe political rally. With the president’s popularity at 80 percent and his anti-guerrilla policies widely backed, many marchers may use the February 4 rallies for partisan purposes. The message may be that Uribe is the only leader capable of fighting guerrillas and, as a result, he must be re-elected to a third term in 2010.It was only five years ago in the United States – post-9/11 and pre-Iraq – that George W. Bush had a popularity rating similar to Uribe’s. Today, thinking back on that period makes most Americans cringe. President Bush’s 80-percent period was marked by the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretaps, renditions, waterboarding, rampant media self-censorship, “shock and awe,” and “Mission Accomplished.” If the anti-FARC protests become a massive pro-Uribe demonstration, Colombia will be that much more likely to commit similar mistakes.
  • Don’t intimidate the opposition. Many Colombians oppose the FARC but have deep doubts about the Uribe government’s security policies. Many Colombians oppose the FARC but believe that only negotiations offer hope of achieving peace or releasing long-suffering hostages. Many Colombians still recall that key government supporters also have had long histories of supporting paramilitarism, and worry that they may avoid justice.Will there be space at the marches for those who reject the FARC but who believe in finding another way out of Colombia’s conflict, and who are not among the 80 percent who claim to support Uribe? Or will the marchers do their utmost to make them unwelcome? Will they even find themselves subject to unfounded accusations of supporting the guerrillas, if not outright aggression?

In today’s El Tiempo, columnist María Jimena Duzán expressed some of these concerns quite well. Here is a translation.

To the Facebook Marchers
By María Jimena Duzán
El Tiempo, January 28, 2008

Continue reading »

Jan 25

  • Gallup has released its latest bimonthly poll of Colombians with telephones in four major cities. (1.7 MB PDF file) They give President Uribe a record approval rating of 80 percent. In fact, the poll shows an upward boost for just about every Colombian institution, and just about every prominent Colombian working within the system. The reason appears to be the continuing crisis between Colombia and Venezuela: Hugo Chávez’s verbal attacks on Uribe and expressed support for the FARC have caused Colombians to rally around their president and their institutions. The approval ratings of Chávez and pro-Chávez Senator Piedad Córdoba dropped sharply, while only 1 percent of those surveyed had a positive opinion of the FARC.
  • The Spanish verb rodear means both “rally around” and “surround.” Semana columnist Antonio Caballero recalls a joke attributed to humorist Jaime Garzón (killed by paramilitaries in 1999): “hay que rodear al Presidente… ¡para que no se escape!” (”We must rally around/surround the President… so he can’t escape!”)
  • Speaking of Chávez, Miami Herald reporter Gonzalo Guillén published a piece Monday alleging that “Venezuelan-made ammunition is regularly reaching Colombia’s FARC and ELN guerrillas.” It is unclear whether these transfers are the result of border-zone corruption or a Chávez government policy. Visiting Colombia, U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen worried about Venezuela providing “strategic support” to the FARC. If any of this is true, it is quite alarming. There are very few examples worldwide of a country supporting an insurgency in a neighboring country. Semana columnist Héctor Abad compares the situation to wars in Africa (such as that in the DRC) where neighboring countries actively support rebel forces.
  • Don’t miss Juan Forero’s piece in today’s Washington Post on the seventh anniversary of the barbaric paramilitary massacre in Chengue, Sucre. (Read a harrowing 2001 account of the massacre, and the Colombian military’s likely complicity in it, by Scott Wilson, Forero’s predecessor at the Post Bogotá bureau.) The town’s inhabitants still seek justice, as almost all the people who killed Chengue’s inhabitants – in some cases by beating them with clubs and stones – still walk freely and unpunished among their fellow Colombians. “The truth, as villagers see it, is that the paramilitary commanders who carried out the killings received uniforms and armaments from the military, and passed unmolested through this region, which was controlled by the navy.”
  • Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Medellín right now, trying to convince a delegation of Democratic House members to support the free-trade pact with Colombia. Here in Washington, many are speculating about whether the Bush administration actually plans to force Congress to vote on the agreement this year. According to the rules of “fast track” trade-promotion authority, once the administration “drops” the accord in Congress, the House and Senate have ninety “session-days” (probably four or five months) to bring it to a vote. (Some refer to this as the “nuclear option,” since it risks seeing the agreement defeated.) In an interesting piece last Friday, however, Reuters reporter Doug Palmer notes that Congress could always change the rules, using a parliamentary maneuver to strip out the “fast track” language and postpone consideration of the Colombia FTA until 2009 – or indefinitely.
  • While Colombia’s Supreme Court continues to try dozens of “para-politics” cases against prominent pro-government politicians accused of helping paramilitaries, President Uribe this week filed slander charges against the court’s chief justice. According to Uribe, Justice Cesar Julio Valencia lied when he told the El Espectador newspaper that Uribe had asked him about the case against his cousin, accused former Senator Mario Uribe.
  • Is FARC leader “Manuel Marulanda” dying of prostate cancer, as has often been rumored? A Brazilian newspaper this week published allegations that Marulanda is near death, and that FARC leaders are embroiled in a vicious internal power struggle to replace him. Meanwhile Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos says that “the government knows the area” where Marulanda is located, “but it is better not to tell” where it is. “When we grab him, we will take him by surprise.”
  • Meanwhile in Mexico, a top defense official made an absolutely stunning admission: more than 100,000 soldiers have deserted Mexico’s army in the last seven years – and many of them are now in the service of narcotraffickers. Yet Mexico’s police are at least as troubled: in three important border towns this week, the Mexican Army forced municipal police to cede control, citing widespread allegations that local law-enforcement was deeply infiltrated by drug cartels. Meanwhile Congress is still considering a Bush administration proposal to give hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Mexico’s security forces.
Jan 24

They did a good job of keeping it under wraps. We heard nothing about Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Colombia until it was announced on Tuesday. (Not surprisingly, nobody at the U.S. embassy mentioned it to us when we were in Bogotá last week.)

Only yesterday did we see a list of the ten Democratic members of Congress who will be accompanying the Secretary. This made it impossible to prepare any briefing materials or lists of suggested questions to ask.

Those ten members, who will spend about 24 hours in Medellín, are:

  • Eliot Engel (D-Bronx/Westchester, New York), the Chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee;
  • Jane Harman (D-El Segundo/Wilmington, California);
  • Solomon Ortiz (D-Corpus Christi/Brownsville, Texas);
  • Alcee Hastings (D-Ft. Lauderdale/West Palm, Florida);
  • Jim Moran (D-Alexandria/Reston, Virginia);
  • David Scott (D-Jonesboro/Smyrna, Georgia);
  • Rick Larsen (D-Everett/Bellingham, Washington);
  • Melissa Bean (D-Schaumburg, Illinois);
  • Ron Klein (D-Ft. Lauderdale, Florida); and
  • Ed Perlmutter (D-Lakewood, Colorado).

Three of these ten (Bean, Moran and Ortiz) were among the fifteen Democrats who voted for the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005. Two (Moran and Ortiz) have voting records that reflect support for Plan Colombia over the years, while six (Engel, Harman, Hastings, Scott, Larsen and Bean) have tended to vote for amendments to cut military aid and increase economic aid to Colombia. The other two, Klein and Perlmutter, are in their first term.

CIP’s Colombia Program is not an active participant in the Free Trade Agreement debate – our expertise is security and human rights, not economics. (We share Human Rights Watch’s view, however, that the U.S. government should use the pending agreement as “leverage to press Colombia’s government to effectively confront impunity and break the paramilitaries’ power.”)

Beyond the FTA, though, we worry that some of these ten Democrats might come back to Washington with a skewed view of Colombia, and U.S. policy toward Colombia, after their two highly staged days there.

Over the years, we’ve seen trips like these distorting the views that members of Congress hold about Colombia, a country about which they probably don’t think too often. Normally thoughtful members of Congress, prefacing their remarks with “I’ve been to Colombia, I’ve talked to the Colombian people,” go on to declaim about the wonders of Plan Colombia and President Uribe’s hard-line policies.

“I don’t know what you’re going on about, Plan Colombia is working,” they will say to congressional colleagues who have paid longer, unofficial fact-finding visits to less-charming regions of the country. “I think you’re being overly negative.”

We ask the members of Congress in Medellín today: please return to Washington wanting to know more. You’ve only heard half the story. After one day in the Secretary of State’s bubble in Medellín being shown just what they want you to see, you’ve “been to Colombia” as much as a Cancún spring breaker has “been to Mexico.” Your intellectual curiosity should be provoked, not satisfied.

Incidentally, while in Medellín it’s a shame that you won’t be meeting with any of the following people. These uninvited individuals and groups could have given you a much fuller idea of how complex the situation really is in Colombia, and what the true consequences of your aid and trade decisions will be.
Continue reading »

Jan 23

Here is a translation of a piece that several people have e-mailed to me over the past few days. It is an open letter to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez from William Ospina, a noted Colombian writer and poet. It ran in Sunday’s edition of the Colombian magazine Cromos.

Ospina’s message is that Chávez has committed a grave error by seeking to confer political legitimacy on Colombia’s guerrillas without first demanding dramatic changes in their behavior. Coming from a messenger who recognizes that social injustice is very real in Colombia, distrusts Álvaro Uribe, and even claims to admire Chávez, Ospina’s gentle but firm message is several times stronger than any rage-filled speech from President Uribe.

A Letter for President Chávez

By William Ospina
Cromos magazine, January 20, 2008

Mr. President:

I have always thought, unlike the Colombian government, that Colombia has an armed conflict that must be resolved through a political negotiation.

I have always thought – without erasing the many crimes they have committed and continue to commit – that the guerrillas had, at their start, a political reason for their insurgency.

I have always believed that the Colombian state’s management of this conflict was wrong from the start. Even the current government, through the voice of the President of the Republic, has admitted that one of the causes of the guerrillas’ existence was the state’s irresponsibility, its lack of commitment to guarantee the community’s rights, the lack of state presence in many regions of the country.

I believe that many decades of exclusion, lack of opportunities, and a regime of privileges for some sectors and vulnerability for others favored a climate in Colombia in which violence was a recourse to settle all kinds of conflicts.

The current government has repeated many times that it is making a serious effort to correct everything that its predecessors did not know how to confront during so much time, and I think it is true that there is an effort on behalf of authority, administration, and justice. Today, nobody can deny that violence, kidnapping and massacres have diminished in Colombia, and that state forces’ presence is felt more firmly throughout the territory.

However, we are far from having achieved a democracy like the one we truly need. In the regions [that is, away from major cities], the electoral system is still captured by all kinds of pressures and violent actors. Many supporters of the current government have also been supporters of paramilitarism, which produced a genuine holocaust during the last twenty years in Colombia. Many more are complicit in vast, intricate phenomena of corruption.

For this reason, I believe that we are in no condition to say that ours is an exemplary democracy, or that there are no reasons to criticize it. In fact, in his own discourse the President of the Republic himself has undone many things that his political philosophy claims to support. He has shown himself capable of using words like “guerrillas” and “bandits” to describe members of Congress elected by popular will, who are doing nothing but exercising their right to oppose him politically while respecting constitutional norms.

Under these conditions it is fair for one still to doubt whether the Colombian state has been able to reform its old exclusionary and corrupt practices, which have even included open resort to violence to persecute and silence the opposition. None ignore that the National Front [a power-sharing arrangement between the Liberal and Conservative parties, 1958-1974], which gave Colombia peace for fifteen years, was later taken away for thirty because it incubated many of today’s evils. By closing off democracy, it stimulated the growth of insurgent forces, cleared the way for corruption, turned the state into a bipartisan collusion free of oversight, and once again stimulated – as in the times of La Violencia – the practice of privatized justice through support for self-defense groups that degenerated into all sorts of paramilitary phenomena.

There are important intellectuals who think that in moments when the state is undergoing a transformation, it must be helped along by silencing criticisms and celebrating each and every one of its advances. I think that is a mistake. When the evils have been so many and have gone on for so long, democracy will only go forward if every citizen understands that democratic advances are not generous concessions from the state, but rights that have been delayed for too long. It is more necessary than ever to point out errors in order to help the community’s knowledge of its rights to ripen.

For thirty years, since the beginning of the National Front, Colombia did nothing more than accumulate problems that nobody resolved. The guerrillas of the FARC, ELN, EPL, and M-19, narcotrafficking, corruption, and paramilitarism were the outcome of that era of passable administrative activity but total political ineptitude when it came to confronting problems and finding democratic solutions.

The first priority of political solutions is to guarantee the greatest possible citizen tranquility. Here, instead, war was seen as the only mechanism for managing problems that have objective causes, which had – we could say – a primitive political justification. Who today can deny that all these guerrillas were born from an exclusionary state and an authoritarian society in which some did not stop believing in citizens’ rights, and in which union members’ rights were denied, as were the students’ arguments and the campesinos’ demands, which were all stupidly and gratuitously dismissed as “agitation” and terrorism?

Through these means, many sectors were pushed into succumbing to resentment, and the hatred that these campesinos and rebels feel toward the state grew worse. Even more serious: decade after decade the hatreds were fed by reciprocal distrust, until some minor conflicts turned into a gigantic war, which has not ceased to exist just because some people refuse to call it by this name.

The Colombian government affirms that in the past five years, between 50,000 and 70,000 illegal fighters have demobilized. Shouldn’t this make us Colombians think that we have been living through a conflict, that in fact we have passed through a very deep crisis, and that some of the elements that motivated that crisis have still not been removed from the scene?

And now, in the past few days, and moved – I’m sure – by your willingness to help Colombia overcome its problems, you, Mr. President, have made two affirmations about which I think it is necessary to think deeply. First, you have said that the existence of the conflict must be recognized, and even that the FARC’s and ELN’s character as insurgent armies must be recognized. Maybe this is true, because I think that only by recognizing them as political adversaries is it possible to have a political negotiation with them. But it is clear that the guerrillas themselves must take the first step, by freeing all the hostages whom they are maintaining in subhuman conditions, and by demonstrating that they will follow – not as an external imposition but as an intimately held conviction – the norms of International Humanitarian Law.

Continue reading »

Jan 21

This is the conclusion of last week’s posts about the FARC hostage crisis and the humanitarian accord negotiations.

4. All serious facilitation efforts should be allowed to go forward until one, or a combination, is acceptable to both parties. There are many possible actors to choose from.

“Wanted: Mediator For Peace With FARC,” reads Marcela Sánchez’s Washington Post online column from Friday. “An International Mediator for the Exchange” is the title of an op-ed by former U.S. Ambassador Myles Frechette that appeared Sunday in Colombia’s El Tiempo. Frechette writes:

This is an excellent moment for the Colombian government to consider utilizing a distinguished non-Colombian, respected by both sides and neither a member of a government or of an international organization, to negotiate the release of all persons held by the FARC. This could be a distinguished European, Latin American, or an American. The negotiator would have to be trusted by both sides in order to achieve a mutually acceptable solution.

Both analysts are right. The Colombian government and the FARC cannot do this on their own. Someone (or some combination of people) in direct, constant contact with both sides must hammer out a compromise.

Currently, both sides have chosen to make their offers and counter-offers in public, with blustery, highly politicized declarations. These offers are then routinely rejected in public statements. When they occur, private communications move slowly, as even small proposals can take weeks or months to get a response.

A real effort toward compromise would require one side to ask the other, “what would you change about our proposal (for instance, our proposal for a demilitarized zone)?” and get a quick reply. Such a conversation, however, must occur in private and must be guided by a trusted third party or parties.

This “middleman” (or “middlepeople”) can play a “good offices” role, shuttling messages back and forth or offering a venue for talks to take place. It (or they) can play a more active and authoritative “mediation” role, chairing talks, keeping both sides to an agenda and offering suggested compromise proposals.

Several parties, both foreign and domestic, offer strong possibilities. Nearly each has unique comparative advantages and drawbacks.

  • The Colombian Catholic Church. After Colombian President Álvaro Uribe “fired” Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez from his facilitating role in late November, his government said that the Church was the only party “authorized” to make contacts with the FARC. The National Conciliation Commission of the Colombian Episcopal Conference is pursuing those contacts. The FARC, which appears to regard the Church hierarchy as too close to President Uribe, has been responding slowly.
  • Hugo Chávez and the Venezuelan government. Though Chávez is clearly the facilitator with whom the FARC would prefer to work, he grows more unacceptable to the Colombian government with each passing day.
  • The three European “friends” of the process. The governments of France, Spain and Switzerland have played a periodic facilitating role since 2005. They were the first to propose a smaller demilitarized “encounter zone” for humanitarian-exchange talks. On Sunday, President Uribe “re-authorized” these three governments to resume their facilitation role. On our visit to Bogotá, however, we heard frequent concerns that France – which was widely perceived as concerned about only one hostage, dual French-Colombian citizen Íngrid Betancourt – was coming to play a dominant role among the three countries.
  • Continue reading »
Jan 17

(This is a continuation of yesterday’s post about the FARC hostage crisis and the humanitarian accord negotiations.)

2. The U.S. Congress members’ offer to meet with FARC was generally well received.

“Mr. Congressman, are you going to meet clandestinely with the FARC in the jungles of southern Colombia?”

Believe it or not, Colombian reporters asked Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) that question – or variations of it – on several occasions during his January 11-15 trip to Bogotá.

The question was a bit surreal; McGovern’s response was sober, but its first nine words surprised many.

“I would be willing to meet with the FARC only if I thought it would achieve something positive and tangible. I’m not interested in being used for propaganda purposes. I’m only interested in seeing these hostages returned to their loved ones.” (Hear the quote here; that’s me struggling to translate.)

The story behind this begins in September, when Colombian opposition Senator Piedad Córdoba – who was then the Colombian government’s chosen facilitator for hostage-for-prisoner exchange talks with the FARC – paid a visit to Reps. McGovern, Gregory Meeks (D-New York) and Bill Delahunt (D-Massachusetts) in Washington.

At that meeting, she showed a video of her recent visit to FARC leader Raúl Reyes somewhere in Colombia’s jungles. Reyes made plain that the FARC was interested in meeting with members of the U.S. Congress to discuss its history and its “proposals.”

Reyes’ message came six months after seven Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives had sent a letter to three European governments. That letter endorsed the Europeans’ plan for a small zone in which humanitarian-exchange talks could take place.

The video carried an implicit offer that these U.S. legislators play some role in the discussions that Córdoba and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez were facilitating at the time. Reyes expressed his belief “that they [the members of Congress] can contribute to this objective of an exchange.”

In response to this and other indications that the FARC were interested in meeting, the three members of Congress have maintained a consistent position: the one outlined in Rep. McGovern’s response above. We will meet with the FARC, they said, as long as we don’t emerge from such a meeting empty-handed.

The FARC are on the U.S. and European terrorist lists, and they kill hundreds of civilians each year. The FARC produces and sells cocaine, and holds at least 700 people hostage.

For a member of the U.S. Congress, to meet with the FARC is to run an enormous political risk. To come out of such a meeting with nothing tangible – to be forced to say little more than something like “we feel we made progress toward a framework for talks” – would be disastrous.

Continue reading »

Jan 17

Update as of 8:30 PM: “La W” radio still has the story at the top of their website, nearly 12 hours later, but with nothing new to report. Further results of calling around indicate that those who would normally be expected to have heard something, haven’t heard anything. 

Another post from my Colombia trip will be forthcoming, but “La W,” one of Colombia’s main radio stations, just posted this to its website.

I’ve made a couple of calls, and have been told that while we should keep our fingers crossed, we should wait for official word from the FARC before believing this to be true. “Exclusives” for Colombian radio stations are not the way the FARC has traditionally made such things known.

January 17, 2008 8:57 AM

FARC will free more hostages
Source: Asdrubal Guerra

La W has learned exclusively that in Venezuela in a few hours, the FARC will announce the handover of new kidnap victims.

Among those who will be freed are one of the three U.S. contractors and another four hostages who are in grave health conditions.

Upon being asked about the issue, Senator Piedad Córdoba said that prudence is necessary, and she abstained from confirming it.

“After all that has happened with the previous liberations, the relatives are immensely concerned that this must have a happy ending, and for that reason I thing that much discretion is needed,” the Liberal senator said from Venezuela.

Developing story.

While this is an exciting possibility, at this point we second Senator Córdoba’s call for prudence and discretion.

Jan 16

Reps. McGovern and Miller meet with relatives of FARC hostages.

Greetings from the 8:20 American flight from Bogotá to Miami. I have no scenic pictures to post from this trip; this time, I was accompanying three members of the U.S. Congress who paid a four-day visit to Colombia.

It was an unusual delegation, since each one of the representatives had a different agenda. Rep. George Miller (D-California), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, was investigating labor rights, meeting with a wide variety of union leaders and judicial officials. Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Massachusetts), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight, was investigating U.S. corporations’ alleged support for paramilitary groups; his work took him to two Colombian jails to meet with top paramilitary leaders. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) was looking into the issue that has been dominating the headlines coming out of Colombia lately: the FARC hostage crisis and the search for a humanitarian accord.

As a result, the three members of Congress were almost never in the same place. I accompanied Jim McGovern, which gave an incredible opportunity to speak with just about everyone who has played a role in the humanitarian accord issue – government officials, diplomats, NGOs, hostage relatives, analysts, journalists and “facilitators.”

Without revealing too much about what were a series of off-the-record conversations, I came away with the following conclusions about the present moment.

1. Hugo Chávez, from hero to zero – but still with a role to play. Only about 24 hours separated one of the Venezuelan president’s proudest moments from one of his biggest missteps. Last Thursday, a triumphant Chávez welcomed Colombian hostages Clara Rojas and Consuelo González, whom the FARC had released into his custody, and basked in grateful words from the two women and their families.

On Friday, however, Chávez angered many and confused most with a speech arguing that Colombia’s guerrilla groups are politically legitimate “armies” and calling on the European Union to remove the FARC from its list of the world’s terrorist groups.

Why in the world would Chávez have thought it wise to make this public plea, despite no recent change in the guerrillas’ terrible records of violating international humanitarian law? Was there some sort of quid pro quo in which Chávez promised the guerrillas that he would publicly advocate their political status in exchange for these or some future released hostages? (If so – if the result was winning freedom people who have spent so many years in captivity – then making an embarrassing speech would in fact be a small price to pay.) Or perhaps with Friday’s speech, was Chávez signaling the formal end of his facilitation role by abandoning any claim to neutrality?

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Jan 10

CNN’s website has video of the release of Clara Rojas and Consuelo González de Perdomo earlier today. This YouTube channel has more.

The images of the families being reunited on that tarmac in Venezuela are absolutely beautiful. Especially after too many years of unremittingly terrible news about the FARC hostages.

Perhaps it was in questionable taste to have a TeleSur camera crew accompany the International Red Cross to the pickup site, to film the freed hostages thanking Hugo Chávez by satellite phone. But never mind.

It’s probably too much to hope for this to be a turning point in the long, sad story of the FARC’s kidnap victims. But let’s all hope anyway. Dozens more hostages are still waiting for their moment.

Jan 10

Former Colombian Prosecutor General Luis Camilo Osorio.

El Espectador, Colombia’s second-most-circulated newspaper on Sundays, ran an important article in its last edition. It is a confirmation and a reminder of an especially nasty 2001 episode from which Colombia’s judicial system has not fully recovered.

Immediately after taking office in July 2001, Prosecutor General Luis Camilo Osorio acted aggressively to end investigations of both military human-rights abuses and alleged ties to paramilitary groups. For four years with Osorio at the helm, the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía, a separate branch of government whose leader is nominated by the president and ratified by the congress) did remarkably little to pursue human-rights cases, while its Human Rights Unit – a beneficiary of generous U.S. aid over the years – was rendered toothless.

This huge step backward for Colombia’s fight against impunity got some international attention; it was the subject of a 2002 Human Rights Watch report entitled A Wrong Turn. But Colombia has yet to have a real reckoning with what happened under Osorio’s four-year tenure.

That is why El Espectador’s interview with Marcela Roldán, one of several effective prosecutors fired from the Human Rights Unit in 2001, is so important. As you read the translated excerpts here, keep in mind:

• Generals Rito Alejo del Río and Fernando Millán, the two officers whose charges of aiding paramilitaries were dropped upon Osorio’s arrival, had been fired in mid-1999 by then-President Andrés Pastrana. A few weeks after their firing, an association of retired officers, along with a cross-section of Colombia’s right wing, held a large dinner in a Bogotá hotel to honor the two generals.

The keynote speaker at this event was the former governor of Antioquia department, Álvaro Uribe. (”The extreme right, just days before the year 2000, has become as obsolete as the radical left,” read an El Espectador editorial at the time. “For these reasons so many concerns have been raised by the presence of Ex-Governor Álvaro Uribe Vélez. … It is inexplicable that for his return to politics after several months of reflection, he has chosen a forum that lends itself to useless confusions.”)

• The ultraconservative journalist who wrote a column accusing Judge Roldán of being a guerrilla supporter, Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, went on to become the Uribe government’s ambassador to Portugal.

• And Prosecutor-General Osorio? He went on to be the Uribe government’s ambassador in Italy, and today is Colombia’s ambassador to Mexico.

“Osorio devastated the Fiscalía” – El Espectador, January 6, 2008

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Jan 07

Note as of 8:30 PM – Shortly after posting this, I realize I may have missed the bigger story. While Colombia does suffer an aid cut as a result of the reprogramming described below, the majority of the money – at least $10 million – is to be transferred away from Evo Morales’s Bolivia. This would mean a major decrease in military and police aid to Bolivia, which totaled about $33 million in 2007.

During the early 1990s, as Central America’s civil wars drew to a close, the U.S. government reduced its military aid to the region. At the same time, aid to the armed forces and police of Colombia and the Andes began to inch upward.

Could the opposite be happening now? Consider this State Department document that recently came our way (PDF). It is dated September 28, 2007 – the last business day of the U.S. government’s 2007 budget year.

It informs Congress that the State Department decided to take away $16 million in unspent counter-drug military and police aid that had been “in the pipeline,” appropriated and obligated for aviation support programs in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. Instead, this money would be redirected to Central America, where it would pay for:

  • Four Huey helicopters for Guatemala ($10 million, originally intended for Bolivia), for interdiction and opium-poppy eradication.
  • $800,000 for a Guatemalan Police anti-drug Special Investigative Unit (SIU) to work closely with DEA.
  • $650,000 for a “vetted unit” and police aid in Honduras.
  • $1.3 million for ballistics analysis capabilities in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
  • $850,000 in assistance to prevent young people from joining gangs.
  • $600,000 for prison improvements.
  • $175,000 for laser tattoo removal machines for ex-gang members.
  • $1 million for an OAS program for at-risk youth.
  • $175,000 for the DARE (drug education) program in Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast.
  • $200,000 for CADCA community drug abuse-prevention programs in Honduras.
  • $100,000 for drug-abuse prevention in Guatemala.
  • $150,000 for methamphetamine precursor chemical control training in El Salvador or Guatemala.

This is the third reduction in Colombia’s military and police assistance during the past nine months. The first came in April, when Congress rescinded $13 million in funding for maritime interdiction aircraft that the previous Republican-majority Congress had inserted in the 2006 supplemental appropriations bill. The second came at the end of the year, as Congress appropriated $141 million less military and police aid for Colombia than the Bush administration had requested for 2008.

The $16 million cut announced September 28, however, is the first one coming from the Bush administration itself, instead of Congress.

The resulting transfer would mean a huge increase in counter-drug aid to Central America, which we estimate as having totaled only about $10 million in 2007.

Jan 04

The DNA says that the baby is indeed “Emmanuel.” Can we now focus on getting Clara and Consuelo freed, as originally promised?

With most of Latin America’s newsmakers on vacation this week, there is not much else to link to.

  • Bolivia inaugurated a new high military command. The ceremony at least gave the appearance that President Evo Morales enjoys the armed forces’ enthusiastic support.

The outgoing armed-forces chief, Gen. Wilfredo Vargas, said that the military “feels very proud to have had this gratifying opportunity to participate in the transcendental change measures of the government of President Evo Morales,” adding that “the philosophy of the armed forces requires the military institution to be always alert to dissuade, persuade or – if necessary – to repress or annihilate all of the fatherland’s enemies.”

  • Peru’s new defense minister, Antero Flores-Araoz, said that Peru shouldn’t worry about its neighbors’ military purchases, particularly a recent Chilean outlay for a satellite territorial-surveillance system. Peru, he said, should focus on getting its own weapons.
  • Colombia’s National University cites a study claiming that in 2005, 58 percent of rural Colombian households (35 percent urban) had at least one member who goes to bed at night without having eaten.
  • Venezuela registered a rather high inflation rate in 2007: 22.5 percent. Colombia’s 5.7 percent was also higher than expected.