Nov 28

This is from today’s mostly good New York Times lead editorial making recommendations for the Obama administration’s policy toward Latin America.

We have no patience for Mr. Chávez’s corrupt and autocratic ways. But the Bush administration did enormous damage to American credibility throughout much of the region when it blessed what turned out to be a failed coup against Mr. Chávez.

This is absolutely correct. But the Times editorial writers neglect to remind us who else blessed the failed coup: the New York Times editorial page.

From the April 13, 2002 issue of the Times:

With yesterday’s resignation of President Hugo Chávez, Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator. Mr. Chávez, a ruinous demagogue, stepped down after the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader, Pedro Carmona. … Wisely, Washington never publicly demonized Mr. Chávez, denying him the role of nationalist martyr. Rightly, his removal was a purely Venezuelan affair.

The New York Times has a long history of holding political and business leaders accountable. By criticizing the Bush administration for doing something that they themselves did, however, the Times appears to be holding itself to a much lower standard.

Nov 26

Here is the translated text of a note that an audience member passed to me two weeks ago in the Ecuadorian border town of Barranca Bermeja, Ecuador, after Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) visited and held a meeting with community leaders. Barranca Bermeja has been hit hard by the violence across the river in Putumayo, Colombia, with all armed groups making constant incursions and a steady flow of Colombian refugees seeking a safer place to live.

The note follows:

I ask the favor that you tell the new government of the United States that it should change that Plan Colombia. That it not send us any more weapons, airplanes or helicopters, and that the money it invests in such things be invested in agricultural projects. And that together with the Colombian government, that it give security to the campesinos so that they may return to their farms and their productive projects like cattle-raising, fish-farming and crops that we can export. But these crops must be profitable in order to combat coca and narcotrafficking. Thank you.

Well said, “Yen B.” Happy to share it.

Nov 17

Posting to this blog may be infrequent this week, since we’re hosting and accompanying the visit to Washington of eight Colombian human rights defenders.

In addition to the five leaders from Putumayo profiled in the event announcement below – if you’re in Washington Thursday, please do join us in the Rayburn House Office Building – we are joined by Iván Cepeda of the National Movement of Victims, and Gloria Flórez and Nancy Sánchez from MINGA.

The group arrived over the weekend. Yesterday we took a tour of Washington’s monuments and memorials. After 3 hours of stops commemorating the Civil War, World War II, Iwo Jima, Korea and Vietnam, the general conclusion was that the United States sure has been in a lot of wars.

Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC)

(formerly the Congressional Human Rights Caucus)



Thursday, November 20, 2008

1:00 PM – 3:00 PM

2255 Rayburn HOB

Dear Colleague,

Please join the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission for an extraordinary hearing on the continuing human rights crisis in Putumayo, Colombia. Nearly a year in preparation, this hearing brings to Washington, DC a stellar delegation of human rights defenders from the Department of Putumayo, Colombia. Professional simultaneous translation will be provided. Participants will include:

  • Ms. Blanca Nieves Galarraga Meneses: A spokeswoman on behalf of the “disappeared” and the internally displaced, four of her children have “disappeared” and she has suffered displacement with her six grandchildren and two stepchildren. The story of her appeals to legal and security authorities in Putumayo and Nariño provide a roadmap to the difficulties facing families who are displaced and whose loved ones have “disappeared.” For the past six years, she has cared for 8 children, whose current ages range from 8 to 16 years.
  • Ms. Ana Tulia Burbano Acosta: For the past decade, Burbano Acosta has been the director of the Educational Institution of the San Carlos Rural School, in the rural municipality of La Dorada. Subject to FARC and paramilitary threats and violence, the school provides education, shelter, food and refuge to more than 230 students in one of the areas of heightened conflict.
  • Ms. Emilse Bernal Bastidas: President of the Campesino Association of Southwest Putumayo (ACSOMAYO), which includes 73 local advisory committees (Juntas de Acción Comunal), 5 indigenous cabildos, and 2 reservations of the Nasa, Embera, Inga and Awá indigenous peoples. Its members include over 13,000 campesinos and 2,300 indigenous people. Ms. Bernal assumed leadership after the murder of former president, Luis Melo, by paramilitaries in Puerto Asís. ACSOMAYO represents people in the region with the greatest number of violations by the Colombian military, especially in cases of extrajudicial killings.
  • Mr. Cesar Willington Chapal Quenama: Coordinator of the Permanent Forum of the Cofán Nation and the Indigenous Communities of Valle del Guamuez. The Cofán Forum includes the Kitchua, Nasa, Embera, Awá and Siona nations (the Cofán and the Siona are communities considered by the United Nations to be in danger of extinction). These indigenous communities and peoples are threatened by violence by all armed actors, displaced from ancestral lands, and subject to colonization by non-indigenous and Colombian armed forces, as well as by the exploration and exploitation of petroleum.
  • Ms. Fabiola Erazo Garcia: Leader of Ruta Pacífica de Mujeres (Women’s Peaceful Route) and the Alianza de Mujeres del Putumayo (Alliance of Putumayan Women), Erazo Garcia has been on the front lines of the struggle for truth and justice in one of the most violent regions of Putumayo in the municipality of Villagarzón.
  • Ms. Nancy Sánchez Mendez, Associación Minga. Minga is a Colombian NGO in defense of human rights, with representatives throughout Colombia.

Putumayo, in southern Colombia, has received large concentrations of U.S. military, counterdrug, and economic funding, as a focus of counterinsurgency, counternarcotics and armed conflict for the past decade. These human rights defenders will describe what has occurred in Putumayo during the 2000s and the current human rights situation. Their personal stories and descriptions of the human rights situation on the ground in Colombia will serve as a window into the reality of rural life in Colombia.

The hearing will be co-chaired by Human Rights Commission Co-Chair Congressman Jim McGovern, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky and Congressman Raúl Grijalva. Other Members are invited to attend, speak and ask questions of the panelists.

For further information, please contact Hans Hogrefe at 5-5021or Cindy Buhl at 5-6101.


James P. McGovern, M.C.
Co-Chair, TLHRC

Frank R. Wolf, M.C.
Co-Chair, TLHRC

Nov 14

We returned last night from our visit to Ecuador with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts). The delegation spent three days in Ecuador’s eastern Amazon basin region, near the border with Colombia. We visited sites that had been badly contaminated by oil production, the subject of ongoing litigation between U.S. oil company Chevron and thousands of citizens from the region. We visited towns bordering Colombia where local populations were dealing with continued high refugee flows, threats from illegal armed groups, and violence from a narco-economy that continues to flourish. And we spent a day in Quito meeting with officials.

We will post more about what we saw soon. In the meantime, here are some photos from the trip. More can be viewed here and here.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) at Yuca 5 oil well site, November 9

McGovern Ecuador Delegation
Visit to San Carlos, Orellana, November 9

Shushufindi 38 Oil Well Site, November 10

Shushufindi 38 Oil Well Site, November 10

IMG_3976Shushufindi 38 Oil Well Site, November 10

On a barge outside Lago Agrio, Ecuador, November 10

Visit to Cofán indigenous community in Dureno, Sucumbíos, November 10

Visit to Cofán indigenous community in Dureno, Sucumbíos, November 10

On the road between Lago Agrio and Barranca Bermeja, Sucumbíos, November 11

McGovern Ecuador Delegation
In Barranca Bermeja, looking across the San Miguel River at Putumayo, Colombia, November 11

Meeting with community leaders in Barranca Bermeja, Sucumbíos, November 11

Meeting with community leaders in Barranca Bermeja, Sucumbíos, November 11

Meeting with community leaders in Puerto Mestanza, Sucumbíos, November 11

McGovern Ecuador Delegation
Meeting with President Rafael Correa, Quito, November 12

Nov 08

I’m headed to the airport in a few hours, accompanying a congressional delegation to Ecuador. I’ll try to post pictures and give updates from there, but it’s not clear how much downtime-with-Internet-access I’ll have to do that. I’ll be back in Washington on Friday.

In the meantime, here is a link to my co-worker Abigail Poe’s post on the “Just the Facts” blog: a fascinating rundown of what Latin America’s governments and editorial boards said this week about Barack Obama’s election victory.

I look forward to posting again very soon.

Nov 06
  • 535: The number of civilians allegedly killed by the Colombian military between January 2007 and June 2008, according to a new report by the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination Group, a network comprising most of Colombia’s most prominent non-governmental human rights organizations. From the report:

That means that during those 18 months, one person lost his or her life every day, a victim of an extra­judicial execution. That is almost twice the number of events recorded during the period from July 1, 2002 to June 30, 2007 (when 1,122 cases of extra­judicial execution were recorded, representing one victim every other day) and three times the number recorded during the period before the current government took possession, that is to say, the period from January 1997 to June 2002 (when 669 cases were recorded, representing one victim every three days).

  •  At least 11: The number, of the twenty-seven army officers fired last week for their apparent involvement in extra-judicial executions, who attended the U.S. Army School of the Americas or its successor, the Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), according to the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
Nov 05

The Government Accountability Office (GAO, the U.S. government’s comptroller, part of the legislative branch) has just released a 100-plus-page report evaluating the performance of U.S. aid to Colombia since “Plan Colombia” began. It is the product of research begun more than a year ago at the request of Foreign Relations Committee Chairman (and now, Vice-President-Elect) Sen. Joseph Biden.From the summary:

  • Plan Colombia’s goal of reducing the cultivation, processing, and distribution of illegal narcotics by 50 percent in 6 years was not fully achieved.
  • Colombia has improved its security climate through systematic military and police engagements with illegal armed groups and by degrading these groups’ finances.
  • Since fiscal year 2000, State and Defense provided nearly $4.9 billion to the Colombian military and National Police. Notably, over 130 U.S.-funded helicopters have provided the air mobility needed to rapidly move Colombian counternarcotics and counterinsurgency forces.
  • Alternative development is not provided in most areas where coca is cultivated and USAID does not assess how such programs relate to its strategic goals of reducing the production of illicit drugs or achieving sustainable results.
  • In response to congressional direction in 2005 and budget cuts in fiscal year 2008, State and the other U.S. departments and agencies have accelerated their nationalization [turning responsibilities over to Colombia] efforts, with State focusing on Colombian military and National Police aviation programs.
Nov 05

Gen. Óscar González, the new chief of Colombia’s army.

Feeling euphoric over the important human rights steps that Colombia has taken over the past week? The firings of top army officers for involvement in extra-judicial executions, and yesterday’s resignation of hard-line Army Chief Gen. Mario Montoya, were both significant steps forward. But steps backward, unfortunately, are also plainly occurring.

Here are two items to dampen your enthusiasm:

  • Colombia’s president is still unable (or unwilling) to distinguish between respected human rights defenders and guerrilla collaborators. On Monday, Álvaro Uribe had this to say about José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch: “Before Mr. Vivanco, that defender of the FARC, before Mr. Vivanco, that accomplice of the FARC, comes here to criticize the Democratic Security policy, we are making an effort to move this country forward.”
  • Today’s edition of the Colombian daily El Tiempo has this to say about Gen. Montoya’s replacement as chief of the Colombian Army:

“Gen. Óscar Enrique González, new commander of the Army, who a year ago assumed command of the Caribbean Joint Command, had arrived there from the Army’s Seventh Division, based in Antioquia and one of the units most seriously questioned for ‘false positives’ [cases of civilians being disappeared, murdered, and later presented as armed-group members killed in combat].

In fact, when complaints about this practice began in the department [Antioquia] in 2006, he told El Tiempo that the denunciations were part of the guerrillas’ ‘political-judicial war’ against the state.

In an interview about several cases, gathered by the UN and the Vice-President’s Office, of civilians who died in supposedly illegal operations, Gen. González – then the head of the Seventh Division – said, ‘The number of complaints is directly proportional to the success of the units. … This is what some sympathizers of the subversives do to try to halt the military’s operations.‘ Several of those cases, however, ended in guilty verdicts against uniformed personnel.

Nov 04

The following excerpt comes from an article that the Colombian newsmagazine Semana published yesterday on its English-language website. It discusses divisions between Colombia’s armed forces regarding investigations of past human rights abuses:

Even within the Armed Forces there has been division regarding the human rights issue. One opinion is held by [Army Chief] General [Mario] Montoya and his supporters, who are still suspicious regarding judicial proceedings. That side wants to protect its troops and claims persecution by the solicitor general’s office. Montoya’s unquestioned efficacy which transformed him into the hero of Operation “Jaque” (checkmate) the daring rescue mission that freed Ingrid Betancourt and others from FARC captivity, is commensurate with the anachronism of his vision of military forces, anchored more in the doctrine of national security than in the philosophy of modern warfare. The other side is headed by [Armed Forces Chief] General [Freddy] Padilla de León, who is less of a troop commander, but has a modern and universal vision of the role of an army in a society grappling with armed conflict. For Padilla, in this stage of military confrontation, with a weakened FARC and with territorial control, the military has to put is legitimacy at the forefront, because the consolidation of the policy of democratic security depends on the confidence that the Army generates among the population.

About two hours ago, Gen. Montoya, who has faced serious human rights allegations himself, resigned his post, in the wake of the horrific new revelations of civilians being killed and presented as guerrillas or paramilitaries killed in combat.

If Semana’s interpretation is correct, this is a major blow to the hard-line, “anachronistic” military faction that Gen. Montoya represents.

Nov 03

U.S. policy toward Colombia has come up only rarely during the long U.S. presidential campaign. The pending free-trade agreement was discussed on occasion, including a brief mention in the final presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain. Colombia has been mentioned, usually in vague terms, in the candidates’ few policy declarations about Latin America. And McCain paid a visit to Colombia in early July that got little media attention.

Nonetheless, between those few words, their records, and their choice of advisors, it is possible to divine how the two candidates would, if elected, carry out U.S. policy toward Colombia.

One thing is certain from the start. The arrival of a new administration – even an Obama administration, with its promises of “change” – would not mean Year Zero for U.S. policy toward Colombia. Nobody is proposing to start over. President Álvaro Uribe and his government would continue to be one of the United States’ only close friends in South America. Colombia would continue to be one of the world’s largest recipients of U.S. military assistance. Despite its evident failure to reduce cocaine supplies, the current drug-war paradigm will not shift quickly.

While neither candidate proposes to rethink the entire approach, each would take U.S. policy toward Colombia in significantly different directions.

Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona)

Past Latin America experience: McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone where his father, an admiral, was stationed. During the 1980s, he was an ardent supporter of the Reagan administration’s military support for El Salvador and sponsorship of the contra insurgency in Nicaragua. McCain was associated with the U.S. Council for World Freedom, a far-right organization headed by retired Gen. John Singlaub, a key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal. In 1985, McCain traveled to Chile for a “friendly and at times warm” meeting with then-dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet. He traveled to Colombia at the beginning of July to pay a very friendly visit to President Uribe.

Most visible Latin America advisors:

  • Adolfo Franco, a Cuban-born lawyer who headed the Inter-American Foundation in 1999-2000, then spent five years during the Bush administration as the assistant administrator for Western Hemisphere Affairs at USAID.
  • Otto Reich, a Cuban-born official who held Franco’s USAID post from 1981-1983 before serving as director of Public Diplomacy at the State Department, ambassador to Venezuela, and, for a brief time during the Bush administration, as assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

Reich is considered one of Washington’s hardest-line conservatives where Latin America policy is concerned; the “extreme” label doesn’t apply as much to Franco, though both advisors would maintain or strengthen the Bush administration’s approach to Cuba.

Recent statements mentioning Colombia:

Relations with President Uribe: For geopolitical reasons – the utter lack of governments in the region who are anywhere near as friendly to the United States – both candidates are likely to continue the special relationship that has developed between the U.S. government and Uribe’s administration.

As he made clear during his July visit to Colombia, though, McCain views Uribe as the model of the type of leader whom he would support in the region, and he would tighten this relationship still further. Criticisms of human rights abuse, or concerns about checks and balances on presidential power in Colombia, would likely be muted at best.

Plan Colombia and U.S. aid: Due to the U.S. financial collapse and the cost of the federal bailout, there may be less money available for foreign aid over the next few years – regardless of who is elected president. In fact, it is not unreasonable to expect an across-the-board worldwide cut in the foreign aid budget, in which Colombia would participate.

Even if the size of Colombia’s pie is reduced, however, we can expect a McCain administration to fight the Democratic Congress to ensure that the majority of this aid continues to go to Colombia’s armed forces and police. We can expect a McCain administration to continue the Bush administration’s anti-drug strategy in Colombia.

Free trade: The McCain campaign has repeatedly affirmed its support for the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, and Sen. McCain has attacked Sen. Obama for opposing its ratification this year. The brief discussion of the topic during the last presidential debate is illustrative of the contrast between the candidates on the FTA issue.

Outlook: During the 1980s McCain aligned himself with the Oliver North wing of the Republican Party when it came to Latin America policy. It is not clear whether, in the moments when he has focused on Latin America or Colombia over the intervening years, his thinking has evolved. A McCain presidency, at least at first, might resemble the first terms of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, when those running U.S. policy toward the region were from the party’s more ideological, less pragmatic tendency.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Illinois)

Past Latin America experience: Senator Obama has done very little work on U.S. policy toward Latin America in the past, though his upbringing in Indonesia would indicate a familiarity with the challenges faced by developing countries. During his four years in the Senate, he co-signed at least two letters expressing concern about human rights in Colombia. [PDF] [HTML]

Most visible Latin America advisors:

  • Dan Restrepo worked on Western Hemisphere issues on the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the 1990s, when Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Indiana) and Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Connecticut), both of them foreign-policy moderates, were the respective committee and Western Hemisphere Subcommittee chairs. Restrepo now directs the Americas Program at the left-of-center Center for American Progress, which has hosted events for President Uribe and top Colombian government officials, while also publishing a 2007 report by Columbia University’s Aldo Civico urging greater U.S. support for a negotiated peace in Colombia.
  • Arturo Valenzuela, a professor at Georgetown University, directed Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council during President Clinton’s second term. He was an important supporter of the Plan Colombia aid package in 2000.

Recent statements mentioning Colombia:

Relations with President Uribe: The above statements have included praise for Alvaro Uribe and his government. However, it is easy to infer that an Obama administration’s embrace of President Uribe might not be as tight as it was under George Bush or would be under John McCain. Some distancing in the relationship could result from (a) Obama’s opposition to ratification of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement; (b) a greater emphasis on human rights, which could lead to disagreements about impunity and some of President Uribe’s past statements about human rights defenders; (c) concerns about the relationship should Uribe seek a third term; and (d) a perception – fair or not – that President Uribe and his circle favored McCain during the 2008 campaign, including Uribe’s status as one of a small handful of world leaders to have met with Sarah Palin in New York in September.

Plan Colombia and U.S. aid:While the financial crisis may force a reduction in aid to Colombia no matter who is elected, it is likely that an Obama administration, working with the Democratic Congress, might seek a greater balance between military and non-military aid. (That balance right now is 65% in favor of military aid.) An Obama administration could take a more stringent approach to enforcement of human-rights conditions that foreign-aid law applies to military aid. And while the Obama campaign’s statements about anti-drug programs in Colombia have been vague – along the lines of “we’re going to stop doing what’s not working, and do more of what is working” – there is at least some possibility that this could translate into a move away from the failed aerial herbicide fumigation program, and toward a more comprehensive rural governance strategy to curb coca production.

Free trade: Obama has made clear during the campaign that he opposes quick ratification of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, citing concerns about labor rights. He has also made clear that he supported the Peru FTA, however, which probably means that he would probably not seek to re-negotiate the similar Colombia agreement. Obama said in the last debate that instead, he wants to see improvements in levels of violence against Colombian labor leaders, and in levels of impunity for past cases.

Outlook: While a Democratic administration and a Democratic Congress might place greater weight on human rights, labor rights, poverty and inequality, the Democratic Party is not a monolith. It was the Democratic Clinton administration, after all, that gave us a package of mostly military aid in the 2000 “Plan Colombia” appropriation, while bitterly opposing congressional Democrats’ efforts to attach human rights conditions to the aid. The Clinton administration also supported the North American Free Trade Agreement, which continues to be unpopular with organized labor, and signed into law the Helms-Burton provisions tightening the embargo on Cuba. To its credit, though, it also launched some important multilateral forums, such as the Summits of the Americas and the regular Defense Ministerials, which have foundered during the past eight years.

An Obama presidency’s policy toward Colombia, and indeed toward Latin America as a whole, could be the product of constant give-and-take – and occasionally outright disagreement – between the more pro-elite, “realist” officials that dominated during the Clinton years, and the more progressive, human-rights-and-development tendency that has been strongly represented among the Democrats’ congressional leadership. The Colombia policy that results would likely be stronger on human rights, economic development, and encouragement of multilateral solutions, while maintaining the security focus and rhetorical support for President Uribe that have characterized the U.S. approach over the past several years.

Nov 01

I apologize for the scarce posting this week. We’ve been busier than usual putting together two trips: a delegation to Ecuador right after the elections, and a visit of Colombian human-rights defenders to Washington mid-month.

A lot, meanwhile, has been going on:

  • On Wednesday President Uribe fired twenty-seven officers, including three generals, for their apparent involvement in the abduction and killing of more than a dozen young men in the Soacha slum on Bogotá’s outskirts. Months later, the victims’ bodies showed up hundreds of miles away, presented as armed-group members killed in combat by the military. The firings are the most significant human rights-related purge in the Colombian military since 1999, when over a several-month period the government of Andrés Pastrana fired Generals Rito Alejo del Río, Fernando Millán and Alberto Bravo.
  • Election Day is Tuesday in the United States – if you live here, vote. Here, from the “Just the Facts” database of news links, are links to all recent coverage of Colombia that we have seen mentioning Barack Obama and John McCain.