Mar 30

Two weeks ago, following the worst of the crisis between Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela, Colombian rocker Juanes organized “Peace without Borders,” a massive, star-studded free concert given on the Simón Bolívar bridge linking Cúcuta, Colombia and San Antonio, Venezuela.

Juanes was joined by fellow Colombian Carlos Vives, Venezuela’s Ricardo Montaner, Ecuador’s Juan Fernando Velasco, Juan Luis Guerra of the Dominican Republic, and Spanish crooners Alejandro Sanz and Miguel Bosé.

For those of us who were unable to attend the concert, there is always YouTube, where dozens of people have been kind enough to post excerpts. Although a three-inch, highly compressed video is really no way to appreciate live music, here are some high points from Paz Sin Fronteras.

Carlos Vives starting things off with “La Hamaca Grande” (5:38)

Juanes – “Me Enamora” (3:53)

Juan Luis Guerra with an unplugged version of “La Bilirrubina” (4:29)

Alejandro Sanz – “Dame tu corazón” (5:23)

Juan Fernando Velasco and Juanes – “Yo nací en este país” (3:24)

All together at the end, singing Juan Luis Guerra’s classic “Ojalá que Llueva Café” (4:30)

Mar 28

Just a few this week.

  • Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has just signaled a willingness to release many – perhaps hundreds – of FARC guerrillas in Colombian prisons immediately if the guerrillas release Íngrid Betancourt (who is reportedly very ill) and other high-profile “exchangeable” hostages.

With this offer, Uribe appears to be yielding on two of his stated “immovable” conditions in a hostage-for-prisoner exchange: a requirement that freed guerrillas not be able to re-join the FARC, and a requirement that guerrilla prisoners charged with crimes against humanity not be included in a swap.

Will the FARC respond positively to this gesture? My guess is no: the guerrillas have given every indication that they are wedded by what appears to be their chief demand: the demilitarization of two counties east of Cali as a venue for “humanitarian exchange” talks.

This at least was the FARC’s position when “Raúl Reyes,” the group’s principal spokesman on such issues, was alive. Will the post-Reyes FARC leadership take a different approach? Again, my guess is no.

If the FARC do say no, of course, Álvaro Uribe once again comes out way ahead politically, as he can tell the world that he made another audacious gesture and was once again spurned.

  • Colombian authorities have found 30 kilos of what appears to be depleted uranium buried near a highway south of Bogotá. The barely radioactive metal is believed to belong to the FARC.

It may be the uranium mentioned in a paragraph of one of the communications between guerrilla leaders found on a laptop computer recovered at the site where FARC leader Raúl Reyes was killed on March 1. “It’s exactly the same material listed on Reyes’ computer,” said Colombia’s armed-forces chief, Gen. Freddy Padilla.

That paragraph discussed a possible purchase of uranium for $2.5 million a kilo. If this is the same uranium, the FARC were ripped off terribly. The uranium found Wednesday can be bought for less than $100 a kilo.

Colombian officials, and much recent press, have speculated that the FARC may have sought to craft a radioactive “dirty bomb” out of the uranium. That would not be possible with the uranium that was just found, which has a very low radioactivity. Charles Ferguson, a nuclear affairs analyst at the Federation of American Scientist, explained it this way to Bloomberg News:

“You could stand next to this material for days and nothing would happen to you, unless you dropped it on your foot.”

International Atomic Energy Agency officials are to visit Colombia next week to investigate the find; we will know more then. In the meantime, expect a few days of WMD hysteria.

My guess, based on the partial information made available so far, is that the FARC knew exactly what it was buying: depleted uranium.

Depleted uranium is not useful for building dirty bombs or carrying out other spectacular mega-terrorist schemes. But it is useful for piercing armor, which is why the United States frequently uses munitions coated with depleted uranium.

Perhaps the FARC wanted the super-dense metal in order to take down more of the helicopters that have done them so much damage on the battlefield. Or perhaps they sought the depleted uranium to help penetrate armored cars, as Cesar Restrepo of Bogotá’s Security and Democracy Foundation told Bloomberg:

“The FARC may have wanted this material to build a stronger rocket that destroys the president or a minister’s armored car, not create a weapon of mass destruction.”

This is not as scary as a dirty bomb, perhaps. But it is alarming enough on its own.

  • Arrest warrants have been issued for 15 soldiers in relation to the horrific February 2005 machete massacre of eight men, women and children in the “peace community” of San José de Apartadó in northwestern Colombia. Prosecutors have built a case using evidence from a former paramilitary informant, who claims that the massacre was the product of joint military-paramilitary collaboration.

Let us remember, with some bitterness, the words of President Uribe and other Colombian officials in the days after the massacre, who denied that troops were in the area, sought to blame the deed on the guerrillas and made statements linking the community’s members to the FARC.

Mar 26

Here is the text of a letter that 24 U.S. non-governmental organizations sent today to President Álvaro Uribe. It expresses alarm about the recent wave of threats and attacks against Colombian human rights and labor activists, and questions some dangerous statements made by one of Uribe’s top advisors.

March 25, 2008

S.E. Álvaro Uribe Vélez
Presidente de la República
Cra. 8 #7-26
Palacio de Nariño
Bogotá
Colombia

Dear President Uribe:

We write to express our deep concern about the recent wave of threats, attacks and killings of human rights defenders and trade unionists in connection with the March 6 demonstrations against state and paramilitary human rights violations. We urge you to publicly and immediately adopt effective measures to stop this violence.

Over the course of one week, between March 4 and March 11, four trade unionists, some of whom were reportedly associated with the March 6 demonstration, were killed.(1) Members of human rights organizations have also been subject to a large number of physical attacks and harassment. Their offices have also been broken into and equipment and files have been stolen.

In recent weeks a large number of human rights organizations, including la Asociación MINGA, the Colombian Commission of Jurists, Reiniciar, CODHES, the Movement of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE), and Ruta Pacífica de Mujeres have received threats purportedly coming from the Black Eagles. One threat sent by email on March 11 specifically named twenty-eight human rights defenders. The threat, which was signed by the paramilitary group “Metropolitan Front of the Black Eagles in Bogotá,” accused the individuals of being guerrillas, referred explicitly to the March 6 demonstrations and stated that they would be killed promptly. The next day, another paramilitary email threat to various other groups announced a “total rearmament of paramilitary forces.” In addition to national human rights groups, the threats have targeted the international organization Peace Brigades International Colombia Project (PBI), the news magazine Semana, the Workers Central Union (CUT), indigenous organizations, and opposition politicians. A large number of additional recent instances of harassment, attacks and threats are currently being documented by national human rights groups.

This string of threats and attacks calls directly into question the effectiveness of the paramilitary demobilization process. Indeed, the Organization of American States has reported that twenty-two armed groups linked to the paramilitaries remain active around the country and has expressed “serious doubts about the effectiveness of demobilization and disarmament.”

We are especially concerned by the fact that the threats and attacks came shortly after a series of public accusations made by your presidential advisor, José Obdulio Gaviria, against the organizers of the March 6 protest. On February 10 and 11, on national radio, Mr. Gaviria suggested that the march’s organizers, including specifically Iván Cepeda (spokesman of MOVICE), were affiliated with the abusive guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Your government issued statements on February 15 and March 14 promising to guarantee the rights of those participating in the March 6 protest. However neither statement deterred Mr. Gaviria from continuing his stream of accusations on February 17 and March 20. His latest statement, suggesting that Mr. Cepeda is essentially a member of the FARC, is particularly outrageous coming after the recent wave of attacks and threats.

Baseless comments such as these are profoundly damaging to Colombian democracy and human rights, and place those against whom they are made in direct danger of violence. These statements stigmatize the legitimate work of thousands of human rights defenders, trade unionists, and victims, and can have a chilling effect on the exercise of rights to freedom of expression and free association. And in a country like Colombia, with its record of political violence, statements like these only contribute to a climate of political intolerance that fosters violence. Indeed, on February 11, the day after Mr. Gaviria first made the comments, the supposedly demobilized AUC paramilitary group released a statement on its website echoing Mr. Gaviria’s attacks on Mr. Cepeda and the victims’ movement.

Continue reading »

Mar 25

Are the FARC guerrillas are about to “implode?”

That question, raised in a Washington Post front-page story on Saturday, may seem fanciful but is actually worth asking. But it is even more worth asking, “What would happen next?”

What would happen if the FARC as we know it ceased to exist – no more Marulanda, no more Secretariat, no more hierarchical arrangement of blocs, fronts and columns?

This possibility can’t be dismissed. It could be that, within the next few years, Colombia’s largest guerrilla group might lose coherence, taking on a new form or splintering into a messy series of successor groups. If so, this would owe to:

  • Military pressure: a 50 percent increase in the Colombian armed forces since 2000 has meant more frequent anti-guerrilla offensives, and more frequent desertion of mostly rank-and-file guerrillas as the war of attrition drags on.
  • Increased results against top guerrilla leaders: the last year or so has seen far more mid-level and top-level FARC leaders captured or killed. This has not been the result of massive, costly, scorched-earth military offensives, but instead the product of better intelligence work. Colombian military intelligence – long synonymous with spying on labor leaders and human rights defenders – has finally taken on the more difficult task of actually trying to locate top guerrilla leaders.
  • The FARC’s own unpopularity: years of abusing poor rural citizens have yielded a bitter harvest for many guerrilla fronts. An insurgency cannot survive for very long if the local population fears and loathes it.
  • Narco-money: the drug trade fueled the FARC’s spectacular growth during the 1990s. For a time, the drug money maintained the struggle. Today, for many FARC units, it is the other way around.
  • Leadership problems: few organizations succeed after decades under the same hidebound leadership. Now that the guerrillas’ founding generation is being claimed by the Grim Reaper, it is not clear who is next to succeed them. After Manuel Marulanda leaves the scene, a scenario of fragmentation is plausible.

If FARC implodes or fragments, champagne corks will pop in Bogotá and Washington. But will violence and narcotrafficking in Colombia be much different than the status quo? Perhaps, but probably not.

The FARC, or successor groups, will be on the scene for some time to come. Many FARC units (the powerful Eastern Bloc commanded by “Mono Jojoy” comes to mind) remain quite wealthy and militarily strong. Even if the FARC should splinter someday, some of its remnants could be bigger, and better armed, than most insurgencies Latin America has witnessed.

“Implosion” is not synonymous with peace. Even if the FARC shrinks or fragments, military victory remains far off, and negotiations seem unlikely in the near term. If even the ELN guerrillas, who are a small fraction of the FARC’s size, continue to be active while peace talks have made no progress, how many years would it take to force the FARC or its successors to surrender on the battlefield?

No FARC wouldn’t mean no violence in rural Colombia. If the FARC disappeared, would Colombia’s government be able to fill the vacuum and govern its territory? What would happen to the country’s vast “ungoverned spaces” – the zones where armed groups rule, coca is grown, cocaine is trafficked, and military force alone has proved insufficient as a nation-building strategy?

    In the absence of a politically supported, strategically coherent, well-financed program of state presence without impunity in ungoverned territories, how long would it be until new drug-money-fueled armed groups – whether new guerrilla insurgencies or the rapidly growing “emerging” paramilitary organizations – take the FARC’s place?

    A defeat of the FARC is highly unlikely anytime soon, and a guerrilla “implosion” – if it happens – could make the security situation even more complicated than it is now.

    Mar 25

    These exchanges took place at a March 6 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, at which senators questioned Adm. James Stavridis of the U.S. Southern Command (video here).

    SEN. JACK REED (D-Rhode Island): Admiral Stavridis, I think when [Stavridis's predecessor] General [Bantz] Craddock was here in April of ‘06 he indicated that we would be able to draw down some of our military forces in Colombia within, at that time, 18 months, so we’re bumping up against that proposed deadline. What’s your comment on the forces in Colombia?
    ADM. STAVRIDIS: I’m optimistic, sir. Colombia has made enormous progress. … I fully expect, over the next 24 months, we should be able to move toward a reduction in our very small forces that are there. As you know, Senator, we have a cap of 600 U.S. military. We’re — typically average well-below that, in the 500 range.

    SEN. CARL LEVIN (D-Michigan, committee chairman): Admiral, I think that you have addressed this question. … I believe we were told originally that the military support for Colombia at the current level was going to be lasting about 18 months. This was extended after that first 18-month period elapsed. Were you asked when do you believe we can start to draw down U.S. forces?
    ADM. STAVRIDIS: Sir, I was. And –
    SEN. LEVIN: And was there a short answer to that?
    ADM. STAVRIDIS: The sort answer is, let’s say, 24 months from now, I think, would be a good window.

    In other words: Q: “Southcom told us two years ago that the U.S. military presence in Colombia would start decreasing in a year and a half. What happened?” A: “Just give us another 24 months.”

    Mar 24

    The talks between the Colombian government and the ELN guerrillas, which have been limping along for nearly three years now, are in big trouble.

    This is despite a minor breakthrough last December, when the Uribe government quietly dropped a demand that a cease-fire agreement require all ELN fighters to concentrate themselves in specific zones (something the guerrillas had regarded to be tantamount to surrender). Despite this advance, the ELN have simply not contacted the Colombian government since November, when Álvaro Uribe “fired” Hugo Chávez from his role as an authorized facilitator of talks with both the FARC and ELN guerrillas.

    Here is a translation of a rather pessimistic overview of the current situation from Luis Eduardo Celis of the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, a Colombian think-tank that has followed the ELN process very closely. (The organization was founded in the mid-1990s by ELN dissidents who demobilized in 1994.) It was posted last week to the Colombian online publication Actualidad Colombiana. Passages in boldface reflect our emphasis.

    Is the ELN saying goodbye to President Uribe?
    Luis Eduardo Celis Méndez, advisor, Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris
    Actualidad Colombiana 468 (March 19-April 2, 2008)

    Last January 11, President Chávez proposed before Venezuela’s National Assembly the granting of political status and recognition of belligerency to the FARC and the ELN. Through a public communiqué, the ELN Central Command gave its view of this proposal. This news was made known through a video sent to the Telesur network, in which Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, this organization’s maximum commander, reads the communiqué.

    The terms used there deserved to be carefully evaluated. “The ELN cheers the Venezuelan proposal to give the Colombian guerrillas recognition as belligerent forces, and is willing to work to make this initiative a reality. We hope that the international community will join this effort for peace in Colombia,” the communiqué reads.

    By now we can evaluate the call on the international community to support the idea of granting belligerency status to insurgent organizations: only the President of Nicaragua showed any affinity for President Chávez’s proposal, and nobody else made any similar pronouncements. Very much to the contrary, the European Union reaffirmed its consideration that both the FARC and the ELN should remain on the terrorist lists as long as they fail to show respect for International Humanitarian Law. For their part, Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil have been prudent about giving signals of approval, as has Argentina. In general, the pronouncements that have been issued do not view the proposal as appropriate.

    Among sectors of the international community, as well as among some political analysts and national social initiatives, it is argued that this is a good moment for the ELN to sit down at the table with the government of President Uribe. That there is a political “window of opportunity,” given that a situation of polarization exists with regard to the FARC. It is believed that President Uribe could be willing to carry out a negotiation including issues that are important to the ELN. In fact, in December they privately indicated their willingness not to demand fighters’ concentration and identification if the ELN presented proposals sufficient to guarantee a cease fire and proceeded to the signing of a “basic accord.”

    Since the crisis begun with the termination of President Chávez’s mediating role, the ELN has not had any contact with the government. Now, with this January 20 communiqué, the question that remains is whether the ELN has made a decision not to return to the table unless President Chávez’s role is “re-established” by Uribe – something that, judging from events of the last two months, is not going to happen. The distancing between Venezuela and Colombia is so great that in Caracas, it is said that this open confrontation could be the “catastrophe” that President Uribe mentioned last November as a requisite for him to consider running for a third potential term.

    We have insisted that the ELN acts according to rational calculations, that it it has considered a strategy for action, and that everything would seem to indicate that it has joined itself to a stable alliance with President Chávez and, in an informal way, to the FARC’s strategy of staying totally distant from overall negotiation processes with the government of President Álvaro Uribe Vélez. We could be wrong. We hope that, indeed, we are, and that the ELN-government process is renewed in the coming weeks. But all signals indicate that this will not happen, since it would seem that for the moment everything must go through Caracas.  Of course, these dynamic situations could change, but there is little reason to expect a helpful atmosphere nor actors with enough political weight to get involved and breath some new political air into the situation. An aggravating factor is that we are almost at the midpoint of President Uribe’s term and his 80% popularity rating would seem to give him little urgency to modify his strategy.

    The ELN should be very clear that to get up from this table, one in which it has explicit political recognition as an armed political force, and in which it was seeking to create a scenario to debate issues of fundamental importance for the nation, would carry a high cost in terms of its credibility at the national and international level, as well as in its strategy of resistance. The war against them will worsen and the humanitarian cost will be permanent, the weakening of its structures could be significant and, perhaps more worrying, its involvement in the dynamics of narcotrafficking could accelerate and place it in directly in the way of the United States’ anti-drug agenda. Another issue, even more delicate, is a failure to build a broad consensus about the complicated agenda of truth, justice and reparations, and a failure to think of negotiations in a country where recognition of armed struggle is infinitely, residually small. A country in which the civilian left itself, in the framework of the 1991 Constitution, feels the guerrillas are a pebble in its shoe as it approaches the 2010 elections.

    If the ELN leaves the negotiation table and does not choose to deal with the real difficulties that sprang from the termination of President Hugo Chávez’s facilitation, it will be losing a historic opportunity for a negotiation. New cycles of regional wars will come, as well as a public opinion climate highly favorable to the effort to annihilate them militarily. Those of us who support the mechanism of dialogues and concertations will return to the desert, trying to rebuild the situation, always amid increasing incredulity on the part of those who tell us, “I told you, the ELN isn’t interested in any negotiation.” And yes, everything would seem to indicate that they are not; we hope that we are wrong.

    Mar 21
    • Write a critique of U.S. policy toward the Americas in less than 1,000 words? No problem. See my essay “Good ‘Politics,’ Bad Policy” on the website of FOCAL, the Canadian Foundation for the Americas.
    • The International Crisis Group has capped a months-long research effort with an excellent two-part report on anti-drug policy in Latin America. Highly, strongly, emphatically recommended.
    • Were Gen. Leonardo Gallego, head of the Medellín police at the time, and Gen. Mario Montoya, who is now head of Colombia’s Army, involved in a 2003 episode in which five non-combatants were killed and presented as dead guerrillas? A February article in the Colombian magazine Cambio, which we missed when it was first published, indicates that Gallego and Montoya may have had something to do with the case.
    • 14 U.S. Senators wrote a letter (PDF) to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the end of February expressing concern about the increase in these “extrajudicial executions” committed by the Colombian armed forces.
    • Civilians have been killed and wounded in the crossfire in fierce combat between guerrillas and the Colombian army in the largely indigenous municipality of Toribío, in the southwestern Colombian department of Cauca. Indigenous leaders cited in El Tiempo charge the Colombian Army with indiscriminate use of bombs. In a press release, the army’s Third Brigade blamed the FARC.
    • A new Facebook group seeks to recruit 1,000 people to march to a remote FARC encampment in June to demand the release of guerrilla hostages.
    • We’ve posted videos of Southern Command’s annual testimony to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees to Google Video (the videos are too long for YouTube).
    • Miami Herald columnist Andrés Oppenheimer bemoans the near-total absence of Latin America coverage in the U.S. media. He interviews the authors of a recent study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism:

    “Latin America was not measured as a separate category, but it is safe to assume that it accounted for less than the 0.5 percent devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The study’s authors told me that even some of the most dramatic events in Latin America got very little coverage in the mainstream U.S. media.”

    Mar 20

    A top advisor to President Uribe apparently thinks victims’ advocate Iván Cepeda is a FARC guerrilla.

    With Colombia’s human-rights community reeling from a sudden increase in killings and threats, U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield deserves praise for paying a visit to a threatened human rights organization.

    On Tuesday, Brownfield was at the offices of MINGA, one of Colombia’s most effective and energetic human rights groups, some of whose staff were mentioned by name in threats sent last week by a group calling itself “Black Eagles – the Rearmament.”

    MINGA’s press release about the ambassadorial visit is translated below.

    But first, we must condemn – in the strongest terms possible on a G-rated blog – the latest disgusting comments by José Obdulio Gaviria, one of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s most senior advisors.

    Gaviria had said in February that protests in support of victims of paramilitary and government violence, which were scheduled for March 6, were “convened by the FARC.” Iván Cepeda, a leader of the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes and one of the March 6 events’ organizers, accuses the presidential advisor of creating a climate that has left organizers vulnerable to violent retribution after being falsely tied to guerrillas.

    In a column in one of Colombia’s main newspapers and in a “citizens’ petition” sent to the presidential palace, Cepeda called on President Uribe to dismiss Gaviria.

    This, incredibly, is how the presidential advisor responded yesterday, in the Colombian newspaper El Periódico.

    “Every kind of request issued by the FARC is always studied by the government, and that is exactly what is being done with this citizens’ petition.”

    What an embarrassment for the Colombian government: a high official repeatedly emits slander that puts a citizen’s life in danger, and the president himself does nothing about it.

    If José Obdulio Gaviria is unable to distinguish between a prominent non-violent human-rights activist and a guerrilla, he has no business being in a position of responsibility for how his country is governed.

    Here is MINGA’s release.

    PRESS RELEASE

    UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR VISITS MINGA

    With the purpose of learning about the human rights situation in several regions of Colombia, the United States’ Ambassador, Mr. William R. Brownfield, visited the offices of the MINGA Association, a human-rights defenders’ organization that accompanies vulnerable communities in several regions of the country.

    During the ambassador’s visit, different facts affecting human rights and the constitutionality of the state were presented, among them: the critical human rights situation affecting indigenous and campesino communities in Putumayo department, where the armed conflict has increased; forced displacement; extrajudicial executions; arbitrary detentions; the food-security crisis provoked by the aerial spraying of glyphosate; the indigenous communities of northern Cauca who find themselves in the crossfire between the security forces and the guerrillas; the increase in extrajudicial executions in the Catatumbo region; the degradation of the conflict, the blockades of foodstuffs, abuses and aggression that indigenous and afro-Colombian communities confront in Nariño and the southern Pacific coast (Buenaventura and Tumaco).

    Also under discussion was the issue of political guarantees that the national government must offer the human rights and social movements for the free exercise of their labors, which are recognized in the national and international contexts, and the negative impact that Plan Colombia has had, and has, on the social fabric of the rural communities where it has been implemented.

    MINGA Association for Alternative Social Promotion

    Bogotá, March 18, 2008

    Mar 19

    As noted before, CIP is not an active participant in the debate over the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. But in the past week the Bush administration has unearthed a “national security” justification for the FTA that can’t be allowed to stand.

    “As your national security advisor in that region, I will tell you that it is very important that the free trade agreement be passed from a national security perspective,” the commander of U.S. Southern Command, Adm. James Stavridis, told the House Armed Services Committee last week. “And, I hear that not just from senior people in Colombia, but from my interlocutors in the region. They’re watching very closely to see what happens to a nation that stands with the United States for a decade or more.” The admiral echoed an argument that President Bush used in speeches on March 12 and yesterday.

    The administration is employing this argument in a specious, misleading and cynical way. As currently formulated, it could become a pretext for a host of irresponsible and counter-productive policies in Latin America and the Caribbean.

    To the extent that it has been thought through, this “national security” argument seems to be based on four main debating points. Each of these points makes little sense, though, when considered on its own.

    1. The FTA will make Colombia more secure by increasing economic prosperity, which will weaken the FARC.

    White House “fact sheet”: A free trade agreement with Colombia would bring increased economic opportunity to the people of Colombia through sustained economic growth, new employment opportunities, and increased investment.

    Dan Fisk, director of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council: The free trade agreement, in our view, is critical to helping Colombia address the continuing threats it faces. First and foremost is the threat of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, the FARC. It continues — the FARC continues its assault on Colombian democracy, and its assault against the Colombian people. … In fact, if there’s one argument, I think, that is paramount in this is that we know that the main recruitment ground for terrorists, for guerillas or drug traffickers is poverty. The best way to get out of poverty is to create more and more opportunities for Colombians. That’s what President Uribe and the Colombian government is trying to do. That’s what the Colombia free trade agreement will do.

    Whether the FTA will create prosperity in Colombia can be endlessly debated between credible experts on both sides. There does seem to be a rough consensus on two points, though:

    • Increased access to U.S. markets would probably mean job growth for Colombia’s export-oriented manufacturing sector, which is mainly based around big cities like Medellín, Bogotá and Barranquilla. (There is less consensus, obviously, about whether these would be unionized jobs or even “good jobs at good wages.”)
    • In rural areas, export-oriented agribusiness (capital-intensive crops like African palm, timber, or rubber) would do well. But these crops produce very few jobs per acre.

    Smaller-scale farmers, on the other hand, would be dealt a strong short-term blow. As has happened in Mexico since NAFTA, family farms, cooperatives and communities producing foodstuffs for local markets could find it impossible to compete with a flood of cheaper products coming from the United States.

    Even if the rural situation somehow restructures itself in a decade or two, over the next few years the FTA will mean a severe shock for many of Colombia’s small-scale rural producers. Past experience with FTAs makes it reasonable to expect a sharp economic downturn in the remote, “unglobalized” rural areas.

    In Colombia, the trouble is that these are the very areas where coca is grown and guerrillas are strong.

    Dealing a blow to small-scale producers in places like Cauca, Nariño or Putumayo could damage the livelihoods of thousands of farmers who, as it is, are just getting by. It could add to the ranks of rural dwellers who see no other option but to plant coca. It could add to the population of young rural Colombians susceptible to recruitment by guerrillas or “emerging” paramilitary groups.

    In the absence of a “Marshall Plan” for Colombia’s countryside – which is not forthcoming – the FTA could deal an economic shock to zones that, while sparsely populated, are of central importance to the effort to combat armed groups and the drug trade. Rather than making the Andes safer, the FTA could trigger a more immediate national-security threat.

    2. Failure to pass the FTA in 2008 would be a victory for Venezuela.

    Continue reading »

    Mar 18

    José Obdulio Gaviria (left) linked the March 6 protest’s organizers to the FARC. Now, protest organizers are being threatened and killed.

    This is not the first time that Colombian human rights defenders have received a wave of e-mail threats from people claiming to be re-armed paramilitaries. This time, however, the threats that several individuals and organizations received late last week have come after a series of murders.

    Most of the labor and human-rights activists killed during the past month were organizers of the March 6 protests on behalf of the victims of state and paramilitary violence. Even the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ field office in Bogotá, which has said little publicly for months, issued a statement last week expressing concern.

    Iván Cepeda, a leader of Colombia’s National Movement of Victims of State Crimes, explained the worsening situation in his regular column in the Colombian weekly El Espectador. Cepeda calls for the resignation of José Obdulio Gaviria, a controversial advisor to President Álvaro Uribe, who may have green-lighted some of the violent retribution when he smeared the March 6 mobilizations as an event organized by the FARC.

    Here is a translation (with a few edits) of Iván Cepeda’s column lifted from the website of Britain’s Colombia Solidarity Campaign.

    The dismissal of José Obdulio Gaviria
    Iván Cepeda Castro
    El Espectador 14 March 2008

    In the next few days, with those individuals and organisations who would like to add their names, I will lodge the following petition.

    Señor President of the Republic, the below signed citizens and organisations, in use of our constitutional right to address the authorities with respectful petitions, request the dismissal of your advisor José Obdulio Gaviria.

    As you know, on March 6 hundreds of thousands of people participated in events in 102 cities in Colombia and around the world in solidarity with the victims of the paramilitaries and state crimes. By means of a public communiqué, the Government pointed out that it did not support this demonstration, but offered guarantees for the programmed events to take place. Nevertheless, Mr. Gaviria made public declarations that affirmed that neither you nor he would participate in a march “convened by the FARC.” In spite of the March 6 organizers’ request that these slanderous assertions be officially withdrawn, no government spokesperson did so.

    This situation generated an atmosphere of increasing insecurity. On February 11, 2008, the day after Gaviria’s declaration, a pronouncement was made by the [paramilitary] Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia that also affirmed that the march was instigated by the guerrillas. Then, on February 13, threats started against organizations promoting a day of action in Nariño. On February 28, individuals shot at the apartment of Adriana González, a march organizer in Pereira.

    Four trade union leaders have been assassinated in the week after the 6 March protests. Carlos Burbano, vice-president of the National Hospitalworkers Union was disappeared on 9 March in San Vicente del Caguán. He had led the local March 6 demonstration. His corpse was found at the municipal rubbish dump with his face disfigured by acid. In Caquetá the preparations for March 6 were frustrated when General Oscar Naranjo affirmed that a FARC leaflet calling for department-wide participation in the demonstrations had been found.

    General Naranjo did not mention that the actual demonstration organizers had denounced parallel calls by armed groups. Women from Caquetá who were going to take in a national march of displaced people decided not to come because of the fear spread by the official announcement. Libardo Pedrozo, one of the organizers of the displaced people’s march, was threatened. On March 12, threats were made against 28 human rights defenders and several social organizations. These were signed by the group called the ‘Black Eagles’ that announced it “will be implacable” against the March 6 conveners.

    All these circumstances demonstrate the continuity of the sinister actions of paramilitary structures and those who carry out state crimes. Their violent reaction owes to the massive citizens’ repudiation they received on March 6. But the government too has responsibility for this situation. The declarations made by José Obdulio Gaviria generated a propitious atmosphere for violence that has cost the lives of four trade unionists. We will initiate legal proceedings against him. Further, we ask you Mr President, to dismiss him: the initiation of violence is a serious crime.

    Assassinated Trade Unionists in the week of 6 March

    • Carmen Cecilia Carvajal, teacher. Killed 4 March, in Ocaña, Norte de Santander.
    • Leonidas Gómez Rozo, member of the bankworkers union, Unión Nacional de Empleados Bancarios (Uneb), president of the CITY-BANK Branco. Killed on 5 March, in Bogotá.
    • Gildardo Gómez Alzate, teacher and activist of the Asociación de Institutores de Antioquia (Adida). Killed 7 March, in Medellín.
    • Carlos Burbano, vice-president of the Hospitalworkers Union, Asociación Nacional de Trabajadores Hospitalarios. Killed 11 March, San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá.

    Here is the (rather unhinged) text of one of the threats received by dozens of human-rights defenders.

    Continue reading »

    Mar 17

    This sort of thing keeps happening:

    • Colombians were outraged in 2000 when word got out that the FARC held a farewell party, complete with whisky and dancing, for Víctor G. Ricardo, the Pastrana government’s outgoing high commissioner for peace.
    • Colombians were outraged in 2002 by photos of James LeMoyne, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative in Colombia, happily embracing FARC leaders after narrowly averting a breakdown in peace talks.
    • Colombians were outraged in 2004 by leaked recordings from the government’s negotiations with paramilitary groups, in which High Commissioner for Peace Luis Carlos Restrepo assured AUC leaders that they will not be extradited to the United States.
    • Colombians were outraged in 2007 by photos of opposition Sen. Piedad Córdoba, an authorized “facilitator” of hostage-for-prisoner exchange talks with the FARC, donning a beret and accepting flowers as she posed for pictures with FARC leaders in Caracas for talks.
    • Colombians are outraged in 2008 by reports of an October 2007 letter from a U.S. citizen to FARC leader Raúl Reyes, taken from a FARC computer recovered at the site where Raúl Reyes was killed.

    The U.S. citizen, development expert and consultant James Jones, offers to serve as a “bridge” to make possible a proposed meeting with members of the U.S. Congress. His note to Reyes quietly conveys a message that Rep. Jim McGovern went on to deliver publicly during a January 2008 trip to Bogotá: “I would be willing to meet with the FARC only if I thought it would achieve something positive and tangible.”

    What makes Jones’ letter controversial, as Semana magazine notes, is the “cordial and friendly tone” with which Jones addresses Reyes. Even if it means coming with proofs-of-life or a similar concession in hand, Jones writes, a meeting with a U.S. Congress delegation “would be an ideal way to internationalize the FARC and would give them international recognition (something that [Colombian President Álvaro] Uribe doesn’t want). It would also give an opportunity to show the world that one can negotiate with the FARC.” Jones signs off with “a Boliviaran greeting.”

    I have known Jim Jones since 2001, when he was carrying out dozens (perhaps hundreds) of interviews for a research project on Colombia’s conflict. It is through some of these interviews that he came to know guerrilla leaders like Reyes. I know that Jim Jones does not support the FARC’s choice to pursue armed struggle, and he doesn’t want Manuel Marulanda to be the next president of Colombia. Jim is working from the best of intentions: he very dearly wants to see the FARC and the Colombian government return to the negotiating table.

    Like many before him, Jim Jones is being publicly embarrassed for being revealed to have shown too much softness, friendliness or bonhomie in private communications with an armed group. As Jones’s statement, translated below, indicates, he used the language he did in order to foster a measure of trust, without which his request would have gone nowhere. As he argues, his methods had some impact: his October 2007 suggestion that the FARC provide proofs-of-life made it all the way up to the top of the FARC leadership, and the photos and videos were taken not long afterward.

    In a similar situation, a seasoned, trained conflict-resolution expert would not adopt the tone and language that Jim Jones, Victor Ricardo, Piedad Córdoba and others have used, in what they thought were private efforts to achieve a climate of trust and mutual confidence. But such an expert’s work requires him or her to walk a difficult line.

    Political reality and public opinion might reward a confrontational style, one that misses no opportunity to remind the guerrillas that they are murderous monsters. Building a working relationship, however, means adopting a more constructive approach – all the while avoiding behavior that could, if it came to light, be misconstrued as misguided or romantic guerrilla solidarity.

    This dilemma makes clear how hard the job of a mediator or facilitator really is.

    Here is Jim Jones’s statement in English:

    Continue reading »

    Mar 17

    The U.S. economy may be in trouble, but my e-mail over the past few weeks has had more than the usual amount of job postings from Washington-based organizations working on Latin America.

    Here are four; they all require prior experience, but qualified people should consider applying. The deadline for some of these is fast approaching.

    • The U.S. Office on Colombia seeks a new Executive Director.
    • (PDF) “TransAfrica Forum is seeking a Senior Policy Associate, whose responsibility would include issues affecting Afro-descendants in Latin America and the Caribbean.”
    • “The Congressional Research Service (CRS) seeks a [part-time] Analyst in Latin American Affairs for the Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division.”
    • Peace Brigades International / USA seeks an Executive Director. “The Executive Director is a new position, created as a result of a recent organizational analysis. The main priorities of the ED position are twofold: executive leadership of PBI/USA and fundraising.”
    Mar 17

    Here’s how the media portrays you when your approval rating reaches 84 percent:


    (From today’s El Tiempo.)

    Mar 16

    Here is an English translation of a column I co-write with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), suggesting some next steps for resolving both Colombia’s hostage crisis and the ongoing tensions with Venezuela. It appears in today’s edition of the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo.

    The Path to Peace in the Andes Is Through a Humanitarian Exchange

    By Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) and Adam Isacson, Center for International Policy

    Published in El Tiempo (Colombia), March 16, 2008

    Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela moved quickly back from the brink of war last week. While the saber-rattling has died down, tensions remain high. The South American neighbors may find that the best exit from this dilemma leads back through the way they came in: via the effort to win freedom for the FARC’s hostages.

    Amid the threats and accusations of Venezuelan support for the guerrillas, the cruel fact remains that forty people – including [Delete: the] three Americans and French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt – continue to languish in jungle camps with little hope of freedom.

    President Álvaro Uribe’s abrupt cancellation of Hugo Chávez’s facilitating role triggered a tailspin in Colombian-Venezuelan relations. The two leaders began a war of words that has escalated for nearly four months now. In January, Chávez’s speeches began to include praise for the FARC, further inflaming Colombian public opinon.

    Amid all of this, Chavez and Senator Piedad Cordoba managed to convince the guerrillas to release six of its hostages unilaterally. But forty more await. Many are ill and desperate to be reunited with their loved ones.

    The prisoner-exchange talks are badly stuck. Not only because of the Colombia-Venezuela spat, but because there is nobody to talk to.

    An interlocutor is desperately needed to get things moving, to make quiet conversations possible. Some go-between, acceptable to both sides, who can quickly relay messages and propose compromise solutions.

    It may be that both sides have some flexibility on the venue for talks. There may be “wiggle room” on issues like the size of the “security zone,” the presence of international observers, or who gets to carry what kind of weapons where. Both sides, meanwhile, have yet to make clear exactly what needs to be discussed and decided in this zone, and what can be ironed out beforehand.

    With no interlocutor, there is no way to have a quiet dialogue about these questions. Instead, proposals get made in public forums like press conferences, and responded to in kind, usually rejected out of hand.

    Right now, the FARC are talking only to the Venezuelan government, to the near-total exclusion of other interlocutors. The Colombian government rejects Venezuelan participation on future talks, because of the growing enmity with Chávez and a belief that Chávez is not an honest broker.

    The facilitator must be acceptable to the Colombian government. Yet Venezuela cannot be shut out either.

    Continue reading »

    Mar 14
    • “Chemical Reactions,” a new report from the Washington Office on Latin America on the U.S. fumigation program in Colombia. The report, the culmination of a long research project over at WOLA, is the definitive dismantling of this failed policy, and does an expert job of questioning claims that the fumigation program poses no health or environmental risks.
    • Sorry not to have posted in 48 hours during such an eventful week; I spent my blogging time yesterday writing a post-mortem of the Venezuela-Ecuador-Colombia crisis that will soon be available on the opendemocracy.net website (not there yet). [3/17: here it is.]
    • In the wake of the crisis, the Bush administration has decided to go for the so-called “nuclear option” – introducing the Colombia Free Trade Agreement in Congress, setting in motion the countdown for a required vote, with no certainty that the accord can pass. In the middle of a presidential election campaign and an economic recession, no less.

    How do you make such a difficult sale? Apparently, by making it a “national security” issue. The pitch uses language reminiscent of the Reagan adminstration’s 1980s appeals for aid to El Salvador and the Nicaraguan contras. Said President Bush: “The region is facing an increasingly stark choice: to quietly accept the vision of the terrorists and the demagogues, or to actively support democratic leaders like President Uribe.”

    (So apparently, it’s Uribe’s way or the terrorists’ way. Needless to say, we reject this false, dishonest dichotomy in the most strenuous terms.)

    The rhetoric is familiar – only this time, the “evil empire” in question is not Soviet expansionism but Hugo Chávez, who leads a country of only 26 million people and gets his dollars from our own oil purchases.

    • Will the Bush administration put Venezuela on the list of U.S. terrorist-sponsoring states? Probably not, for now at least.
    • At a House hearing yesterday, the Southern Command gave its annual “Posture Statement” (PDF). Southcom’s commander, Adm. Jim Stavridis, urged Congress to pass the FTA (an issue apparently popular [PDF] with Southcom chiefs) and presented plans to make Southcom into an “inter-agency coordinator” of U.S. policy toward the region.
    • Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa remains angry at the United States. “In Washington, they say we help the FARC. Let them come and put American troops on Colombia’s southern border,’ Correa said. ‘Let them suffer deaths and bloodshed, and we’ll see if they keep talking.’”
    • Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos was in Washington from Tuesday to Thursday, but he held no public events and didn’t even talk to reporters. This is either because of the seriousness of his mission, or because the Colombian government didn’t want him to say anything he’d have to apologize for later.