Mar 30

Here are translated excerpts from Antonio Caballero’s column in last weekend’s Semana magazine, which revisits Colombian Vice-President Francisco Santos’s recent incendiary comments about U.S. assistance and human rights.

We don’t fully endorse all the sentiments expressed here – is there a direct link between recent U.S. training manuals and abuses like the Soacha murders? -  but they are well written and strongly argued. And I’m pleased that somebody, somewhere, wrote the clause in boldface in the third paragraph.

By Antonio Caballero
Semana magazine, March 29, 2009

Vice President Francisco Santos says that it is “undignified” that Colombia (he means: his administration) must be accountable to the United States for its human rights abuses, or risk losing Plan Colombia funds, which they call “aid.” And ex-President Andrés Pastrana leaps up to defend this so-called “aid,” saying that what is “undignified” is that these abuses occur. Both are correct. Except that, as in the evangelical parable, they don’t see the logs in their own eyes.

Santos, in effect, complains about the only U.S. intrusion in Colombians’ lives that has not been completely perverse in its effects: the only one that has saved human lives. I don’t remember any other. Not the theft of Panama, nor the defense of United Fruit to the point of provoking the [1927] banana massacre, nor the oil contracts, nor the imposition of war against communism, nor the war on drugs, nor the demand for an economic opening, nor the reforms to the justice system, nor – of course – Plan Colombia itself, whose most notorious consequences have been the increase and dispersal of drug trafficking and production, in its anti-drug aspect, and, in its antiguerrilla aspect, the deepening and expansion of the internal war. All these U.S. interventions (and if there were no direct ones before Panama, it was because the arm of the United States at that point only reached as far as Mexico and the Caribbean) have not provoked anything more in Colombia than blood and misery. And corruption, naturally: since they have done it by buying the necessary collaboration of local toadies. From the legendary gold ingots that, a long century ago, President Marroquín allegedly received in exchange for the Panamanian wound, to the much-photographed medal of humiliation that George Bush hung on President Uribe a few months ago.

That this latest intrusion of the gringo finger in our affairs about which Santos protests is benign, and has saved the lives of a fistful of campesinos and unionists, or at least postponed their deaths, doesn’t mean, of course, that it hasn’t also been as hypocritical as all the rest. The North Americans (”a small sector,” Vice President Santos clarifies) protest against the excesses that they themselves sowed and encouraged. The “extrajudicial executions” (that is, murders outside of combat), torture, detention-disappearances, “false results” committed in Colombia by the Army and Police and the secret security services were carried out based on instructions and manuals from the U.S. Southern Command and the CIA, and by officials (like those of all the armed forces of the continent, with Cuba the only exception) educated and trained there. And to comply with the policy decided and approved by local bosses following the principles dictated by U.S. administrations, both Democratic and Republican.

These principles have been dictated there, but accepted here, and also carried out and requested from here. For those crimes of state – that is what they are – those responsible are those who have directed the State here, as President Pastrana in his indignation appears to forget.

… For U.S. legislators to start denouncing that model now is as hypocritical as Colombian vice presidents and ex-presidents suddenly discovering it – without even speaking of the current and future perpetual president. It is an indignity, yes, but not against Colombia, but against them.

Mar 29

Apologies for the silence during the latter part of the week. We were accompanying more visitors from Colombia, who were here for Monday’s hearings in the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.

  • At the hearings, the head of the “Justice and Peace” unit in Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) declared that some of the paramilitary leaders extradited to the United States would participate in as many as 60 confessions, via closed-circuit television, over the next few months.
  • The Miami Herald ran a front-page story by Steven Dudley about the “Justice and Peace” testimony of Raúl Hasbún, a paramilitary leader in the Urabá banana-producing region who was the key link between the paramilitaries and banana exporting companies like Chiquita Brands.
  • The Washington Post ran a piece by Juan Forero about paramilitary-linked companies’ theft of land from Afro-Colombian communities, and the government’s halting efforts to return some of the land.
  • Highly recommended is “Shoveling Water,” a 25-minute video from Witness for Peace explaining why the drug war has failed in Colombia. The footage and interviews are stunning.
  • Colombia’s Constitutional Court has served as an important check on executive power, and has issued important decisions limiting the scope of security statutes, the Justice and Peace law, and laws that would have limited small farmers’ land rights. It will also rule over any attempt later this year to change Colombia’s constitution to allow President Álvaro Uribe to run for a third term. As six justices’ terms come to an end, President Uribe has nominated a list of mostly unknown lawyers to replace them, Cambio magazine explains. The effect on checks and balances in Colombia’s state is expected to be enormous.
  • The Colombian newsmagazine Semana presents a jarringly conflicting range of views on the state of the FARC, a year after the March 26, 2008 death of the group’s maximum leader “Manuel Marulanda.”
  • The FARC were certainly more active during this anniversary week. There was fierce combat in Guaviare department, and the guerrillas enforced “armed stoppages” (paros armados) that halted nearly all road traffic in the departments of Arauca and Putumayo. The author of the “Colombian Journey” blog, who lives in Arauca, gives an account of life in the town of Arauquita during the armed stoppage.
  • President Álvaro Uribe’s closest advisor, José Obdulio Gaviria, recently left his post and is now writing columns for Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper. His latest, alleging that the FARC is quietly manipulating the Democratic Party, is so full of paranoid inaccuracies that it would be an amusing parody of extremist ravings – were it not written by someone so close to the country’s president.

“A tiny sector of the Democratic Party defends the points of view of the Latin American extreme left, and defines the FARC as an ‘armed opposition’ party. The FARC (through this tiny sector) influences Democratic policy against Colombia. They have conditioned and limited U.S. cooperation – which they call aid – to, they say, prevent our soldiers from repressing, displacing, and plundering the people.”

  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent two days in Mexico this week. Links to her public statements during the trip are here, and links to coverage of the trip are here.
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales, incensed about the effect that a maritime border negotiation between Peru and Chile might have on Bolivia’s hope of someday recovering access to the Pacific, once again called Peruvian President Alán García “fat.”
  • Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva absolved brown-eyed people of responsibility for the world financial crisis: “It is a crisis caused and encouraged by the irrational behaviour of white people with blue eyes, who before the crisis appeared to know everything, but are now showing that they know nothing.”
  • “He goes and accuses me of exporting terrorism: the least I can say is that he’s a poor ignoramus; he should read and study a little to understand reality.” – Hugo Chávez, talking about Barack Obama last weekend.
Mar 24

“The Armed Forces of Colombia, in this process of being effective and transparent, will gladly correct any error. They don’t accept ‘false positives,’ nor will they allow themselves to be tied up by false accusations.

“Today we see hundreds of false accusations, when in reality only 22 cases of  ‘false positives’ have any juridical foundation.

“We are the first to demand that there be no ‘false positives,’ that there be total transparency. But we have to be the first to denounce that many people, basing themselves on the issue of ‘false positives,’ have caused these false accusations to increase, in order to try to paralyze the security forces’ actions against the terrorists.”

- President Uribe yesterday, alleging that nearly all allegations of “false positives” are unfounded accusations from people seeking to slow down the Colombian military’s efforts to fight guerrillas. The term “false positives” refers to hundreds of cases in which soldiers are believed to have killed civilians, only to present their bodies as those of illegal armed-group members killed in combat.

Colombian non-governmental human-rights groups believe that as many as 1,192 civilians were victims of “false positives” between July 2002 and June 2007, and 535 between January 2007 and June 2008 alone. As of the end of last year, Colombia’s attorney-general’s office (Fiscalía) was investigating 716 cases, with over 1,000 victims, while the inspector-general’s office (Procuraduría) was reviewing 943 cases involving at least 2,742 members of the Army. It is unclear where President Uribe’s reference to 22 cases with juridical foundation comes from.

Mar 24

Here’s a translation of an article on U.S.-Colombia relations that appeared in yesterday’s edition of Semana, Colombia’s most-circulated newsweekly. The article may read a bit like an opinion column, but is unsigned and appears in the magazine’s news section.

Though we don’t agree with all of its conclusions and characterizations, it is a useful view of how mainstream Colombian public opinion – or at least a significant sector of it – is viewing the country’s relations with the new U.S. administration.

[Note as of 9:30AM: Semana has posted its own English translation of this article to its site.]

The 51st State?

Few times in Colombia’s history has the United States stuck its nose so deeply into internal politics. And the amazing thing is, it is doing so with the government’s approval.

Ever since Colombia accepted US$25 million from the United States “to eliminate all enmities produced by the political events that occurred in Panama in 1903″ as part of the 1914 Urrutia-Thompson treaty, the government in Washington DC won itself a place of honor at the table of Colombian politics. A place that it has not abandoned, as was demonstrated last week. On Sunday, the government had to back down after Vice President Francisco Santos proposed giving Plan Colombia a proper burial. The high official complained that the few dollars of aid received do not justify the mistreatment that certain circles in Washington give the country. But he was rapidly deauthorized by Foreign Minister Jaime Bermúdez: “We must continue with Plan Colombia. This Plan is needed to consolidate results in the fight against narcotrafficking and terrorism.”

Days earlier, the minister of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos, had announced that U.S. equipment and aircraft would move from the base in Manta (Ecuador) to Colombian territory. On Wednesday, Colombia awoke to the news that Sen. Patrick Leahy [D-Vermont] had frozen US$72 million in military aid, due to his concern about “false positives” [cases of military personnel killing civilians and presenting the bodies as those of armed-group members killed in combat]. On Thursday it was reported that the United States will request the extradition of David Murcia, of DMG. This informational onslaught, far from being exceptional, reflects the degree of interference that the three branches of U.S. power have in Colombia today, which is possibly the highest in the history of relations between the two countries.

U.S. influence is not new, but it has rarely affected the daily events of Colombians’ lives the way it is being experienced today. If the pillar of any state is justice, in Colombia it is written in English. The oral, accusatory criminal justice system, which has been put in practice in the past few years, is not only inspired by the U.S. system, but was promoted and financed by Washington. Colombian prosecutors are instructed by their U.S. peers.

Its participation doesn’t end there. As sources in the Attorney-General’s Office [Fiscalía] confirmed to Semana, U.S. officials play a leading role on several critical fronts, such as the use of polygraphs to determine the suitability of Colombian prosecutors. In cases that interest the United States – narcotrafficking, human rights – FBI or Justice department agents intervene directly.

The military justice system is transforming in image to resemble that applied in the Pentagon, through the training of Colombian judges and prosecutors.

Extradition, previously an exceptional tool to combat the largest drug capos (the Medellín and Cali cartels), is used indiscriminately today. There have been more than 800 extradited since 2002, of which only a small percentage would fit in the category of too powerful or dangerous to be tried in Colombia, which is the raison d’etre by which extradition was justified.

Also frequent are the visits of the attorney-general, Mario Iguarán, or other judicial branch officials, to Washington, not only to meet with their counterparts in the Department of Justice – which is logical – but also to present excuses and explanations to members of Congress and their advisors.

The accountability to gringo congressmen is no accident: Colombian institutions, among them the Attorney-General’s Office, receive more than US$500 million in U.S. contributions each year. The receipt of this money is what gives U.S. politicians carte blanche to involve themselves in Colombian affairs. And they do it with enthusiasm: not only in justice, but in issues of human rights, national security, social policy and even in how labor relations are enforced in Colombia.

Thanks to the so-called Leahy Amendment, approved in 1997 during the Samper government, the delivery of aid to military units suspected of human-rights violations can be denied. [Note: the Leahy Amendment applies to U.S. military aid to the whole world, not just Colombia.] The norm is so vague and subject to interpretation that any member of the security forces is vulnerable to being singled out as a wrongdoer. The root of the problem is that Leahy, as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, can singlehandedly stop the disbursement of resources, as happened last week with the US$72 million from Plan Colombia. [Note: Sen. Leahy chairs the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee of Appropriations, not the full committee. The US$72 million has already been on hold for several months. Note also the article's outrage about Leahy's hold, and lack of outrage about soldiers killing civilians.] Normally, these decisions are made by Tim Rieser, who is charged with following Colombian issues. This means that the armed forces can come to be subject to the whims of a congressional staffer who lives in Washington.

Leahy is not the only legislator who plays this role of vigilance or influence. Rep. Gregory Meeks [D-New York] convinced the Uribe government that if it paid attention to Afro-Colombians, the Black Caucus (a group of 41 African-American members of Congress) would support the Free-Trade Agreement. This explained the naming of the Minister of Culture and a vice-minister of Social Protection in June 2007, as Semana confirmed from sources in both governments. It is not gratuitous that US$15 million in Plan Colombia funds must be invested in Afro-Colombian communities in the Pacific coast.

In the delicate national-security sphere, U.S. participation, though discrete, manifests itself in the presence of that country’s soldiers and contractors in strategic places: the bases of Tres Esquinas [Caquetá/Putumayo], Apiay [Meta], Tolemaida [Tolima], Arauca and Buenaventura [Valle del Cauca]. Much donated equipment cannot be moved or used without prior U.S. authorization. If the U.S. aircraft and equipment are moved from Manta to Colombia, will they be allowed the same autonomy?

Colombia-U.S. integration in defense affairs is so great that the Colombian government often uses the Pentagon’s procurement system (this achieves economies of scale, a former security official explained to Semana).

The so-called “Plan of Consolidation” in areas formerly controlled by guerrillas has a strong U.S. component. Many of the resources come from the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID). This imprint allows U.S. officials to have a voice and a vote over how and where the money is spent.

This “North Americanization” of Colombia precedes the Uribe administration. The war on drugs and the FARC caused governments to become closer to Washington; but the current administration has gone even farther than its predecessors. The Colombian government signed an accord that grants immunity to official U.S. personnel accused of crimes against humanity so that they may not be sent to the International Criminal Court, but only to their country’s judges.

But maybe the largest signal that Colombia increasingly resembles an extension of the United States are the actions of the so-called opposition. Liberal Senator Juan Fernando Cristo, for example, just returned from a journey to Washington DC, where he explained and sought support for the victims’ law. Piedad Córdoba wants to hand over the keys to the humanitarian accord to Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern [D-Massachusetts]. Colombian unions allied themselves with their U.S. colleagues against the FTA because it would take jobs away from U.S. workers. And thanks to pressure from U.S. unions, the law governing strikes in Colombia was changed.

There are multiple areas in which U.S. economic aid gives that country influence over internal affairs that are strategic for Colombia. Faced with this situation, the solution is not to “satanize” Washington’s aid, which without a doubt has been beneficial to Colombia in such important areas as human rights, security, and the struggle against narcotrafficking and guerrillas. But nor is it helpful for many national security and internal policy decisions to be subject to authorization by U.S. officials, as often happens. This constitutes interference in the country’s internal affairs, which damages national sovereignty.

Mar 20
  • The commander of U.S. Southern Command, Admiral James Stavridis, gave his annual “Posture Statement” testimony [PDF] before the House and Senate this week. One new element was increased expression of concerns about activities of Islamic terrorist groups in the region.

Another threat to the United States is the nexus with Islamic radical terrorism.  In August of last year, U.S. Southern Command supported a Drug Enforcement Administration operation, in coordination with host countries, which targeted a Hizballah-connected drug trafficking organization in the Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.  Last October, we supported another interagency operation that resulted in the arrests of several dozen individuals in Colombia associated with a Hizballah-connected drug trafficking and money laundering ring. …

Islamic terrorist networks are also active, primarily involved in fundraising and logistical support for parent organizations based in the Middle East, such as Hizballah and Hamas.  Individuals with terrorist training and experience who could support or conduct terrorist attacks in our hemisphere may be present in the region, and our intelligence has demonstrated that pre-operational and operational activities have indeed occurred, as exemplified by the attempt to blow up fuel pipelines at the JFK airport in New York in 2007.

Islamic terrorist networks are present in the Tri-border Area, as well as several other locations in the region.  A robust Hizballah financial support network exists in the region, as well as an active group of sympathizers and supporters of Hizballah.  Also present are Sunni groups, including Hamas, whose members possess operational backgrounds.  Moreover, known al-Qa’ida members have journeyed to Latin America and the Caribbean and other terrorist-inspired Islamic radicals have been arrested in the region.

  • Admiral Stavridis won’t be commanding Southern Command for much longer. The Defense Department on Wednesday announced his nomination to head NATO as the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.
  • In several Colombian cities at once, “emerging” paramilitary groups posted flyers threatening specific individuals. The newsmagazine Cambio reports that people mentioned in some of the threatening flyers have begun to be killed.
  • Seven fishermen were massacred, likely by an “emerging” paramilitary group, in the northwestern Colombian department of Chocó.
  • U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy continues to place a hold on $72 million in military aid to Colombia, pending progress in prosecuting cases of “false positives”: hundreds of civilians allegedly killed by the military, then presented as guerrillas or paramilitaries killed in combat.
  • Two recent articles in the Colombian newsmagazine Semana indicate that Colombia’s security forces believe they are near capturing or killing one of the FARC’s most powerful leaders, Secretariat member and Eastern Bloc leader Jorge Briceño, alias “El Mono Jojoy.”
  • Semana also published an important three-article series on the conflict’s victims’ frustrating and dangerous efforts to recover land that paramilitary groups stole from them – and the resulting “counter-land reform” that Colombia’s countryside has experienced.
  • Far-right intellectual Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, whom Álvaro Uribe had named to serve as Colombia’s ambassador to Portugal, devoted a column in today’s El Tiempo to attacking Colombia’s attorney-general, Mario Iguarán, for seeking to punish military human-rights abuse. The prose borders on the truly hilarious.

“The Attorney-General’s Office” – I have written – “is the best ally in the judicial warfare being fought against the Army.” I proved that when a member of the office’s Human Rights Unit, an expert in charges against the military, told me in secret: “I’m the only one here who isn’t a friend of the communists.” The FARC’s infiltration of the Attorney-General’s Office and the rest of the judicial branch has been lengthy, slow, and very effective. If Mario Iguarán hasn’t noticed, it is because his advisors and friends move in circles of the old left, supporters of dialogue [with guerrillas] and of Chávez and adversaries of Uribe, for whom any charge against a military officer, orchestrated by a press starving for front-page news, is worth its weight in gold. On the other hand, those of us who denounce the falsehood of these charges are seen by them as representatives of the extreme right. Are they “useful idiots?” That is what Lenin affectionately called those who, without knowing it, helped the Bolsheviks.

  • Bolivia’s government says it is working on a “new framework agreement” to guide future relations with the United States.
  • President Obama called Mauricio Funes, the new president-elect of El Salvador from the FMLN insurgency-turned-political party, on Wednesday. “The President said he looked forward to working with the new Salvadoran administration and expressed his desire for developing an ongoing dialogue to ensure a productive relationship,” read the White House statement.
  • Obama also met last weekend in Washington with Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, spoke on the phone with Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and will visit Mexico a week before the April 23 Summit of the Americas.
  • Vice-President Joe Biden will be in San José, Costa Rica on March 30 to meet with Central America’s presidents. Funes will attend. So will Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.
Mar 19

I’m at an all-day conference today, so this may be the only post here all day. While preparing my PowerPoint, though, a search for a picture of the region’s leaders yielded the above image, which I had to share. It comes from artist “edwheeler” at the website. And it’s brilliant.

Left to right, in the style of Matt Groening’s “Simpsons” cartoons: Bolivian President Evo Morales, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Colombian pop star Juanes (apparently the focus of the presidents’ attention), Colombia’s Álvaro Uribe, Peru’s Alán García, and Brazil’s Luis Inacio Lula da Silva.

Mar 17

Following on this morning’s post about Vice President Santos and Plan Colombia, here is a translation of Claudia López’s column on the same topic in today’s El Tiempo.

From pampered to spiteful
By Claudia López
El Tiempo (Bogotá, Colombia), March 17, 2009

While President Lula da Silva of Brazil meets face-to-face with President Obama in the White House to discuss global and Latin American policy, the Colombian vice president laments the mistreatment that, according to him, Colombia receives from a sector of the Congress and U.S. civil society, and proposes to do away with Plan Colombia, considering it to be a source of humiliation.

Those news make apparent the shameful contrast bewteen Brazilian and Colombian foreign policy. Thanks to the former, Brazil will become the United States’ strategic partner in the region, and thanks to the second Colombia will be it no longer. Brazil will take on this role for obvious reasons. Because it is the 10th-largest economy on the planet, the most stable and progressive democracy on the continent, the only one with a world-class foreign ministry and president, a player with regional and global leadership.

Colombia will lose its status as preferred partner, also for obvious reasons. Because its role was being exaggerated and because President [Álvaro] Uribe did away with the bipartisan relationship he inherited from [1998-2002 President Andrés] Pastrana and took the side of the Republicans, who lost the election. The result is that Uribe was decorated [with the Medal of Freedom, in January] by Bush, but Colombia is left without solid bipartisan bridges to defend the country’s interests.

The Vice President’s interview with El Tiempo [on March 15, in which VP Francisco Santos called for an end to Plan Colombia] is a strong indication that the Colombian government has not finished mourning Bush’s defeat. The interview could be summarized: “Before, we did the same thing and nobody questioned us about anything. Now, they ask us why unionists are killed and we don’t produce judicial verdicts to clarify the crimes; how are we going to ensure that labor rights are respected for free trade; they ask us why we wiretap and follow judges and journalists who make us uncomfortable; why members of the security forces kill innocent young people to give false evidence of combat progress; why criminal gangs continue to operate in zones where the paramilitaries supposedly demobilized. They ask us how we spend those piddling 550 million dollars that they give us for Plan Colombia. It is an outrage! They must respect us!”

No, Vice President. They don’t ask us that just because of the “piddling” money. They ask because they are interested in issues like democracy and human rights. Because the are a central part of the political platform with which they won the elections. Because, I remind you, more than a year ago the Democrats won the congressional elections and four months ago, the presidential election. But you haven’t noticed this detail. Your indignation about the questions, and not about the facts and violations, only reinforces the well-founded doubts that this government now has, and makes them think that you don’t care a bit about whether they kill unionists or violate human rights; the only thing that appears to matter to you is that for this “nonsense” they won’t approve the Free Trade Agreement.

You’re right. Plan Colombia now doesn’t work. It would work better if the United States would commit to an effective policy against narcotrafficking, which wouldn’t leave us bearing all the costs of failure, while the consuming countries ignore their responsibilities at home. But you don’t ask for that. You ask for more planes, more military bases, more fumigations, more prohibition. More of the same failure. And you also ask for an FTA, with no questions asked. When they don’t give you that, you kick and scream and threaten, and then you become indignant because you’re not treated like statesmen.

If you want to be treated like statesmen, behave like statesmen. Stop asking, stamping your feet and threatening. Take the initiative, propose things and keep your word. Develop a bilateral agenda that incorporates both countries’ issues, interests and concerns, and propose specific goals within specific time periods.

To achieve this national purpose, it would help a great deal if the Santoses [Vice President Francisco and his cousin, Defense Minister Juan Manuel] would allow Foreign Minister [Jaime] Bermúdez to dedicate himself to this task, instead of having to put out the fires they start.

Mar 17

Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos had more strong words for critics of the current makeup of U.S. aid to Colombia. An interview in Sunday’s edition of Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper was at least the third time in a week that Santos went on the attack against members of the U.S. Congress, U.S. human rights and labor advocates, and Colombians who have traveled to the United States to provide a perspective that differs from the official government line.

Santos comes up with a novel response to these critics: Colombia should abandon Plan Colombia, downgrade relations with the United States, and seek relations with governments, like China, that don’t value human rights as strongly.

While the Vice President is free to vent his anger, his comments represent a new tone from high Colombian government officials. While Colombian Foreign Minister Jaime Bermúdez quickly issued a very brief statement insisting that Plan Colombia continue, Santos’s words don’t appear to be an accident. It’s hard to imagine that the vice-president is speaking without some sort of prior authorization.

Statements like these serve a strategic goal: the hope is that in the U.S. debate, advocates of mostly military aid, lax human rights conditions and the Colombia FTA will point to them and say, “Thanks to [The Obama administration] [Congressional Democrats] [Human rights NGOs] [Labor unions], we’re ‘losing Colombia.’”

If Santos’s goal is to raise such concerns, he’s missing the point. During the Bush administration, many did indeed worry about “losing” Colombia, since the United States had so few other close friends in the Americas. As President Obama’s friendly meeting with Brazilian President Lula da Silva demonstrated on Saturday, however, the new administration is trying to undo that damage and develop similarly close relations with other countries in the region. For Colombia, this would mean passing from being the United States’ “last best friend” to “one close friend among several.”

The Vice President’s words, then, may not have their desired effect in the U.S. debate. His attacks, however, nearly always include harsh words for Colombians who come to the United States to discuss their country’s human rights or labor situation. The purpose of those words is clearer: to intimidate those who might be considering similar travel. (We include at the end of this post a response from a frequent target of these attacks, victims’ rights advocate and Liberal Party Senator Juan Fernando Cristo.)

Here, thanks to help from CIP Intern Stacy Ulmer, is a translation of relevant portions of Santos’s interview with El Tiempo journalist Yamid Amat.

‘Plan Colombia needs to end’, says Vice President Francisco Santos

“The treatment that we have received on the part of sectors of American civil society and on the part of sectors of the Congress of that country is unfair to Colombia. And I’ll say something more: it is despicable. Look: like so many Colombians, I have felt humiliated in scenarios where they have mistreated us. Precisely, when we are not only allies and friends, but the only country in Latin America where the image of the United States is positive. Nevertheless, they mistreat us, and do they ever! We have to consider this cost when evaluating Plan Colombia’s effectiveness,” added the Vice President.

Furthermore, he added, this help from the United States to fight narcotrafficking “has already fulfilled its purpose.”

Yamid Amat: What does that mean?

Francisco Santos, Vice President of the Republic: That it is not necessary now. I know that this goes against what the President and Ministry of Defense say, but I believe that it is time that we measure the political cost along with its effectiveness.

Q: What is Plan Colombia, really?

It is 550 million dollars of aid of which the third part goes to contractors. 400 million are left to us. Fifty percent goes to social projects, which we could take over ourselves, and the other half, some 200 million, does go to Plan Colombia. A large part of this money is spent on gasoline and transportation.

[Note: We estimate U.S. aid to Colombia, from all sources, at about $650 million this year. About 63 percent is military and police aid. As we have noted before, roughly half of U.S. military and police aid is delivered through private contractors. Most U.S. economic aid is managed by private contractors as well, instead of being provided directly by USAID. If the Vice President is estimating that a third of U.S. aid goes to contractors' salaries and overhead, then, he may be correct.]

I’ll be sincere: Plan Colombia has helped us a lot and was very important at a critical moment, from the political to the police and military against narco-trafficking. Now, it is not needed.

Q: But what relation exists between the mistreatment you denounce and Plan Colombia?

It’s that a small political sector that has dominated with a negative vision of Colombia in Congress asks us to submit silently to the outrage and to bow down reverentially or, if not, they threaten not to give Plan Colombia.

Q: Will its termination not affect the eradication of coca crops?

We are eradicating with our own money. Manual eradication, which has been proved to be more effective than fumigation, reached 90 thousand hectares last year.

Q: And ending Plan Colombia won’t mean a fight with the United States?

By no means. For what I have said I will surely have my ears pulled [be lightly punished] by the foreign minister, but I believe that it is the moment for our relations to evolve to where there is no Plan Colombia, and to design a different policy with the United States; to seek a rethinking that brings us to where we are allies with common interests, allies with common objectives, common values because we have the same democratic values, but allied not with the asymmetry that there is today, but looking face to face, country to country. With mutual respect.

Q: Will they treat us better in anywhere else in the world?

There are many sensible political forums, including within the United States, economic forums, where the image of Colombia is impressive. They see us as the pretty girl [niña bonita: roughly, the showcase or best example] of Latin America for the first time in the last 40 years. I spent three days touring this nation with the Vice-president of China and his conclusion was of astonishment before the great country that he found.

I am sure that we will remain on China’s radar, now that they have confirmed that we are a solid, respectable country, with a growing economy in spite of the world crisis.


Q: And about the issue of human rights?

First, it seems terrifying to me that it would be our own legislators and a small sector of magistrates who present our nation overseas as a state without guarantees [of political expression or dissent], of cruel leaders, of bloodthirsty institutions and with a mafia society, when the results demonstrate everything to the contrary. And if they have opinions that differ from the government’s, it makes no sense for them speak in other countries on matters that should be debated internally.

Q: Of which legislators and magistrates do you speak?

One example of many. Senator (Juan Fernando) Cristo presented a bill about reparations for victims of the violence. He went to Washington and New York to present his bill and to say, incorrectly and with a great deal of bias, that the Government opposes it, when it is under discussion in the Congress, and when there is nowhere else in the world with such an an important, integral project of administrative reparations for victims, which is going to cost the country a ‘bargain’ of 3.5 billion dollars.

Q: But the issue is that Senator Cristo proposes that the State should give reparations not only to those victims of illegal groups, but also victims of the State…

Continue reading »

Mar 13

Here is a helpful English overview of Colombia’s Victims’ Law, which will go into its final debate in the country’s House of Representatives next month. It was prepared by the bill’s principal sponsor, Liberal Party Senator Juan Fernando Cristo.

Sen. Cristo is alarmed that – as the document explains – the Colombian government has moved to weaken key sections of the legislation. If the Uribe administration gets its way, victims of the state security forces – including relatives of people “extrajudicially executed” by the Colombian Army in recent years – would have no access to a special procedure to speed reparations for victims.

Sen. Cristo and the bill’s other proponents want the international community to register their support for the legislation in its original form, as Colombia’s Senate approved it last June. The summary follows. Please share it.

Colombia’s Victims’ Rights Act

Since the 1960s, the South American nation of Colombia has been embroiled in a complex armed conflict involving leftist guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries, and narcotrafficking organizations. In a country of 45 million people, the violence has killed many tens of thousands, forced more than 4 million into internal displacement, and led to the theft of as many as 17 million acres of land. In many parts of the country, the conflict is little more than a cycle of victimization, grievance and revenge that feeds on itself, making a final resolution of the violence ever more difficult.

Breaking this cycle requires a Colombian government policy to provide truth, reparations and restitution to the conflict’s victims. A group of members of Colombia’s Congress is sponsoring a Victims’ Rights Act that would provide a legal framework for such a policy.

It would be the first “victims’ law” that Colombia has ever had, after decades of amnesty laws and sentence reductions that have sought to induce victimizers to demobilize, without any consideration of victims’ rights.

What is the “Victims’ Law”?

  • A bill presented in Colombia’s Congress in October 2007 by an important group of senators.
  • It would benefit all Colombians who, during the past 40 years of armed conflict, have suffered damage or injury that caused, whether temporarily or permanently, collectively or individually:
    • Death or disappearance;
    • Physical disability;
    • Psychological harm;
    • Emotional suffering;
    • Financial loss;
    • Denial of fundamental rights; or
    • Violations of international human rights norms or serious international humanitarian law violations.
  • Benefits would be made available without regard to the identity of the victimizer (guerrillas, paramilitaries, or Colombia’s state).
  • Benefits would also apply to victims’ relatives, spouses, permanent companions or same-sex partners.

Who supports it?

  • The bill was supported in Colombia’s Senate by all parties and political movements.
  • It has received public backing from:
    • National and international human rights organizations;
    • Victims’ organizations;
    • Agencies in the Colombian state charged with protecting and promoting human rights, like the Inspector-General (Procuraduría) and Ombudsman (Defensoría del Pueblo);
    • The Catholic church in Colombia; and
    • International organizations like the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission.
  • USAID’s MIDAS program (”More Investment for Sustainable Alternative Development”) had worked arduously to elaborate a proposal to return stolen land to victims through administrative procedures. The Victims’ Rights Act incorporates much of this proposal, which would provide a quick and effective solution to the main challenge to providing reparations: the return of stolen assets.
  • The UN system supported the bill’s development, including funding a series of consultations in nine regions of Colombia with more than 4,000 victims, who gave testimony about their tragedies and made concrete proposals about how the bill would benefit them.

Why does it deserve support?

  • It is a universal law. All victims, without discrimination, would benefit, whether they be victims of the paramilitaries, the guerrillas, or state agents. With no additional burdens, and without regard to the victimizer’s identity. Victims would need only to accredit themselves through an easy process that presumes their good faith. They would face no deadlines for making their request, because the conflict is still ongoing.
  • The bill views reparation as holistic and complete, not just an economic payment of damages. It also includes other measures like restitution, rehabilitation, and guarantees of non-repetition.
  • The bill views reparation as separate from the economic, social and cultural rights applicable to all citizens. While Colombia’s state is expected to help all citizens, particularly the poor, to improve their lives, victims’ right to reparations goes beyond standard government assistance.
  • The bill creates mechanisms for the rapid return of stolen assets to affected populations. One of these is a reversal of the burden of proof: victims would not have to prove that their lands were usurped. Instead, holders of disputed land titles would have to demonstrate that they acquired them legally. Another proposal is the creation of zones of priority attention, geographical regions where victims of forced displacement would receive urgent assistance to recover their assets through an administrative mechanism.
  • To speed restitution, the bill would strengthen the Reparations Fund, which was created by the 2005 Justice and Peace Law, by making it the recipient of all proceeds from the sale of assets seized from narcotraffickers.
  • The bill would create a Land Truth Commission, which would investigate the most serious episodes of forced displacement and land theft, document their patterns and dynamics, issue technical recommendations to government agencies, and create and protect archives and databases about what its investigations uncover.
  • The bill would create a Historical Memory Center with a museum, a general archive of the conflict, medals and recognitions for victims and their relatives, and the promulgation of a National Day of Solidarity with Victims.
  • The bill would reorganize state agencies charged with providing attention and reparations to victims, by designing a National System of Integrated Aid, Assistance and Attention, and another for Reparations. This would avoid duplication of functions, while improving the quality of attention to victims, the clarity of information provided to them, and oversight of state agencies. It would ensure that victims know the route they must take, both geographically and within the government, to achieve resolution. It would include training of government officials with responsibility for providing victims with social, psychological and legal assistance. These two systems would have an operational plan including the restitution of family life, employment, freedom and dignity, as well as voluntary, safe and dignified return to places of origin.
  • The bill contemplates sanctions for officials who place obstacles in the way of, or otherwise delay, the procedures by which victims seek reparations.
  • The bill contemplates providing a differentiated focus for victims who are women, children, elderly, homosexual, afro-Colombian or indigenous.
  • The bill would create a monitoring commission to provide oversight of the law’s execution. This commission would be made up of representatives of the executive branch, state oversight agencies, and non-governmental organizations.

Legislative background

The Colombian Senate approved the Victims’ Rights Act described here, with the support of both pro-government and opposition parties, in June 2008. It then passed to the House of Representatives where, during its third debate in November 2008, it suddenly encountered government opposition to some of its central provisions.

The Álvaro Uribe administration, and the pro-government legislative majority, objected to the inclusion of victims who had suffered at the hands of the state security forces. They argued that doing so would place the government on equal moral footing with Colombia’s illegal armed groups, which would harm the armed forces’ morale. Colombia’s executive branch also rejected provisions in the law recognizing the government’s responsibility to guarantee victims’ permanent right to reparations, establishing the presumption of the victim’s good faith, and interpreting state jurisdictional questions in the victim’s favor. The three latter principles had been promoted by the United Nations.

Discriminating among victims according to their victimizer, however, would contravene international standards for reparation and restitution of victims. In Colombia, it would mean that victims of the security forces would have to seek redress through the regular justice system, which moves so slowly that cases are routinely not resolved for ten years, if at all. While direct victims of the state are a small minority of the conflict’s total number of victims, many have very urgent claims. They include the relatives of hundreds of civilians whose bodies have appeared throughout Colombia over the past few years. These victims, according to widespread allegations and dozens of criminal cases and firings of officers, were killed by members of Colombia’s Army seeking to present them as illegal armed-group members killed in combat.

The Victims’ Rights Act will be debated a fourth and final time in April 2009, and will then go to a vote and reconciliation between Colombia’s House and Senate. Before then, it is important that the international community accompany the Colombian conflict’s victims by supporting a legal framework that provides restitution and reparations to all of the conflict’s victims, without regard to the identity of the victimizer, in accordance with international standards defined by the United Nations.

Mar 11

Here are excerpts from two recent articles about the same theme: the Colombian government’s security policies and the ongoing realignment of the country’s paramilitary groups and drug mafias. The first is a column in yesterday’s El Espectador newspaper by columnist, former peace negotiator and left political leader Daniel García-Peña. The second is a February editorial [PDF] by Alejandro Angulo, S.J., the director of the Jesuit-run Center for Research and Popular Education, CINEP.

(EDIT: Alejandro Angulo’s term as CINEP’s director ended last year. The new director is Mauricio García, S.J.)

Poorly named “emerging groups”
Daniel García-Peña

In recent days President Uribe launched an offensive against the “emerging groups,” the name being given to the same paramilitaries as always.

This is a new term in the dictionary that the illusionists in the “Palacio de Nari” are editing. ["Palacio de Nari" refers to the way that paramilitary leaders referred to the presidential palace, or "Palacio de Nariño," when a 2008 scandal revealed that they had paid a visit.] In Colombia, they say, there is no armed conflict, just a “war against terrorism;” the dispaced are “migrants;” national security is now “democratic security;” the neoliberal model is called “investor confidence;” anybody who thinks differently belongs to the “intellectual bloc” of terrorism.

This mania for not calling things by their names seeks not only to distort reality in order to make it fit in narrow mental schemes, but also above all to create new virtual “realities” based on lies. In this case, the fallacy is the supposed “end of paramilitarism.” According to the fable, thanks to the “peace process,” 32,000 men were demobilized, we all saw the photos and, abracadabra, paramilitarism now doesn’t exist. The hero of the story is the outgoing “High Commissioner for Peace,” now about to use his heavy magic to unite the pro-Uribe parties.

That is why it was important to have a new name for the extinct paramilitaries. “BACRIM” (criminal bands) is what appears on the wanted posters. Another genius had the idea of calling them “new generation organizations” (NGOs), in order to stigmatize still further the true NGOs.

Past governments have always had a hard time calling paramilitaries by their real name. Between 1965 and 1989, they existed legally as “self-defense groups.” The Barco government, which declared them illegal, spoke of “hitmen” and “private justice” groups. In the Samper government, [Defense Minister] Fernando Botero gave them the prettiest alias, “Convivir” ["to coexist"]. At first, Uribe always called them the “poorly named paramilitaries.”

The truth is that the mass demobilization did not mean the dismantlement of paramilitarism, but instead formed part of its consolidation. Such a large number of armed men was no longer needed. They had already killed the political and social leaders who had to be eliminated, and chopped up and displaced all the campesinos who had land that needed to be stolen. Mission accomplished. In addition, to maintain an army of mercenaries, at 500,000 pesos per month (about US$200) times 32,000 heads, requires a respectable amount of money. As a result, the business was an all-around success: the “reinserted” passed into the care of the public treasury and the paramilitary leaders remain with all the treasure they accumulated as a fruit of their terror, keeping only the strictly necessary number of armed men.

After years of complicit silence, the final report of the OAS [verification] mission warns that 7,000 of the 32,000 ex-”paras” are disconnected from the Reinsertion Program and that some “continue to commit crimes even as they remain in the Program.” By the way, what happened to [fugitive, presumed dead top AUC leader] Vicente Castaño and why does he not appear on the wanted posters?

While the same paramilitaries as always still exist, plus the rearmed and recently recruited ones, whatever you want to call them, will still be killing. And the victims will still be inhibited from denouncing the crimes and demanding their rights to truth, justice and reparations.

The Rearrangement [PDF]
By Alejandro Angulo S.J.

The true victory of Democratic Security [the Colombian government's security policy since 2002] is paramilitary consolidation. Whether it was sought or not is disputable. But that it has not been avoided is certain. Combat against paramilitaries is being carried out by other paramilitaries. The “negotiation” with paramilitaries put para-politics on the table, an old hidden vice in of our vulnerable democracy. But victory over para-politics is still uncertain, since its conjunction with narcotrafficking has made it invulnerable.

Instead, what has been achieved is to conserve and increase a model of political action and economic development that maintains discrimination against ethnic minorities much more effectively than it did during the conquest and colonialism. At the same time, it also manages to shut down any protest against that model of slave economy that privatizes the state and makes work contracts precarious. This protest, which has taken the form of popular demonstrations and has been brought to its violent extreme by guerrillas, has been defeated. That is the deepest meaning of the triumph of Democratic Security.

A dialogue of analysts held at CINEP on Monday, February 2 documented two pieces of news, one good and one bad, which also clarify much that underlies official versions and justifies the clamor of the victims: (a) Democratic Security won the war, and (b) Violence in Colombia has not decreased. Adding the two together yields a very worrisome piece of news: the battles have been won but the war has been lost. Which means that in Colombia, politics is still an accepted form of waging war. In other words: murder is still thought of the most effective strategy at the ballot box, and armed bands are more convincing than political campaigns. Continue reading »

Mar 09
  • Colombia had a mini-political storm last week, just over a year after the cross-border raid into Ecuador that killed FARC leader Raúl Reyes but triggered a crisis of relations with Ecuador and Venezuela. Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, a longtime political heavyweight who makes no secret of his presidential aspirations, asserted Colombia’s right to “legitimate defense,” eliciting enraged responses from both Quito and Caracas and putting President Álvaro Uribe in an uncomfortable position.  “Unfortunately, and with pain in my soul,” said Hugo Chávez on Sunday, “I would immediately send for the Sukhoi [Russian-made fighter] planes and war tanks to be started up, but I won’t let Venezuela’s sovereignty and dignity be disrespected for anything in the world.”
  • The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released its annual report on Colombia’s human rights situation. This report, like the State Department annual report issued a week earlier, includes an extensive discussion of the Colombian security forces’ practice of extrajudicial executions.
  • The mainstays of the counterinsurgency approach that is working in Colombia could be adapted to Afghanistan,” concluded the chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, on a visit to Colombia last week.
  • Paramilitary leader Hebert Veloza, alias “H.H.,” had been cooperating with Colombian authorities, giving a lot of information about his past crimes. That is over now, as he was extradited to the United States last week to face narcotrafficking charges.
  • In an unusually lengthy piece about El Salvador today, the Washington Post says that Sunday’s presidential election there is the FMLN’s to lose.
  • The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the Caribbean town of Bluefields, Nicaragua, is booming economically thanks to regular arrivals of cocaine cast off by drug-smuggling boats trying to evade authorities. “Even lobster fishermen now go out with the pretense of fishing, but really they are looking for ‘white lobster.’”
  • I published a piece Friday on the U.K.-based site about the DAS wiretap scandals and Colombia’s turbulent political moment.
Mar 06

Here is a transcript from the remarks of Rep. George Miller (D-California), the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, at the end of a February 12 hearing on labor rights in Colombia.

It was referred to a number of times here about the beauty of the country of Colombia. And, for those who have visited Colombia, it would not take more than a few seconds to realize why people say that, because of the spectacular nature of the country and its natural assets. And of course, when you meet its people. But that is not a substitute for a serious inquiry into human rights.

I can remember standing at the American embassy, with the American ambassador, at the height of the violence in Chile, and him telling me that this is a beautiful country, and that I should really go to Valparaiso and enjoy the beaches, and see the people who use the beaches, and I should go shopping and enjoy the people who are shopping, and that my concerns were misplaced, because it’s such a beautiful country. My concerns weren’t misplaced. It took almost 30 years, but we brought Mr. Pinochet to justice.

And the world now knows the history of what was taking place while people were suggesting it’s a beautiful country. I had the same treatment from then-President D’Aubuisson, that I should go walk and enjoy the rivers of Salvador, because it’s such a beautiful place. And we all know the history of violence by that government against its people.

[Note: Roberto D'Aubuisson, a far-right sponsor of death squads and founder of El Salvador's ARENA party, was never actually president.]

Rep. Miller’s words inspired the following response yesterday from Colombia’s vice-president, Francisco Santos, in an interview on Colombia’s RCN radio network. [mp3 version here]

RCN Questioner: What do you think about what we just heard? A U.S. Congressman, the president for these issues in the House, George Miller, comparing Colombia’s situation to El Salvador during the time of that criminal, Roberto D’Aubuisson, or with Pinochet’s Chile?

Santos: It seems to me that this statement indicates Mr. Miller’s lack of objectivity, of his ideologization of his entire perception of Colombia, ideologization and radical politicization of Colombia’s reality, which makes him, well, an enemy of Colombia, someone who doesn’t have Colombia’s interests in mind, only his personal and ideological interests.

It seems to me that it [Mr. Miller's statement] is part of a smear campaign against Colombia, in which the political debate going on here has moved overseas.

RCN Questioners: Of course, yes. Vicepresident, yes sir, of course yes. Sir, it’s worrisome that this person, Mr. George Miller, is quite close to Nancy Pelosi. So one might feel that bills like the Free Trade Agreement still have many enemies, at least in the ideological sense in the United States, and that the issue, instead of becoming clearer, is more tangled.

Santos: This is a congressman who only has a personal vendetta, an ideological vendetta, that has nothing to do with, with…

RCN Questioner, interrupting: Reality.

Leave aside for a moment the vice-president’s questioners’ extreme deference and lack of objectivity. (One understands why Colombians refer to RCN as “Radio Casa de Nariño,” using the name of Colombia’s presidential palace.)

Rep. Miller’s point was that he was tired of discussing a country’s natural beauty or good shopping when he wanted to have a conversation about human rights. He was not comparing Colombia to Pinochet’s Chile or 1980s El Salvador – though given the hundreds of unpunished extrajudicial executions the Army has committed in the past few years alone, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch.

In no way should his words make George Miller an “enemy of Colombia.” But the Vice President’s use of this terribly unfortunate term is a chilling example of how today’s Colombian government regards any expression of dissent.

This is not an accidental gaffe on the Vice President’s part, either. He had similar words for a delegation of human rights leaders who visited Washington this week. He told Colombia’s “La W” radio network the following, about an hour before the delegates spoke at an event on Capitol Hill hosted by U.S. Rep. Sam Farr (D-California).

Today in the United States … there is a Sam Farr hearing … where the sad thing about all this is that Colombian politics have moved to international scenarios, and the hatred of the President, the ill will toward the President on the part of some sectors, has now taken on the strategy of going everywhere to trash the country. It makes one feel pain for the fatherland, it hurts one that this strategy is used to try to attack Colombia, to attack the President.

Last week, the Colombian government sent three ministers and other high officials to Washington to ask for a continuation of aid, and to present their version of the country’s current security and human rights situations. However, when Colombian experts and activists with different information travel here – whether to testify at hearings or as guests of non-governmental colleagues – the Colombian government’s highest officials trash them viciously in the national media, while severely mischaracterizing what they have to say. And now, this trashing even extends to members of the U.S. Congress.

We note as well that one of those who testified in Rep. Miller’s February 12 hearing has received serious threats from the Black Eagles paramilitary group. Here in Washington, these threats and Vice President Santos’ careless words send a message loud enough to drown out all official public-relations campaigns’ images of natural beauty and improved security.