Aug 28

Greetings from my couch – I’ve been out sick the last two days. But this morning I took lots of ibuprofen and wrote this analysis of the Colombia base agreement dispute and the UNASUR meeting for the Huffington Post.

Also to update on the re-election referendum debate in Colombia’s Congress: the process of reviewing all 92 legislators’ recusal requests has proven to be too time-consuming, and the House adjourned Wednesday night, postponing further deliberations for as many as eight days. Some Colombian press has been speculating that the pro-reelection camp is still uncertain about whether they have the votes, and may need a few extra days to twist arms outside the spotlight.

Aug 26

Colombia’s National Organization of Indigenous People (ONIC) is reporting that several members of the Awá indigenous community have been massacred by an unidentified armed group in the municipality of Tumaco, near the Pacific coast in the southwestern department of Nariño. The death toll, estimated in the first communique at eight, has been revised upward to 12, five of them children.

On February 4 of this year, over 20 Awá people were massacred in the municipality of Barbacoas, Nariño. The crime was attributed to the FARC, which claimed responsibility for eight of the killings.

ONIC reports:

Today, August 26, 2009, at 5:00 AM a new massacre took place in the Awá indigenous community. The acts occurred in the Gran Rosario indigenous reserve, in Tumaco municipality.

According to information received, men dressed in military uniforms, without insignia and wearing masks, fired indiscriminately at the house of an Awá family. As a consequence of this macabre act, approximately eight members of the Awá people were murdered. According to information received, three children ages 1, 8 and 10 are dead. Mrs. Tulia García and her two children were killed. She was a witness to the death of her husband, Mr. Gonzalo Rodríguez, on May 23, 2009, who it seems was killed by the army.

Aug 26

Following up on yesterday’s post: Colombia’s House of Representatives did not vote last night on the re-election referendum bill. They adjourned near midnight after 92 of the body’s 166 members recused themselves from the vote.

The main reason was that 86 of them were already under investigation by Colombia’s Supreme Court for the crime of “prevaricato” – roughly, acting against legal procedure. Several months ago, these 86 voted in favor of the referendum before they were legally allowed to do so, as Colombia’s governmental Registry had not yet approved the signatures on the public petitions that made the vote legally possible.

As a result, the chamber spent its session yesterday considering each recusal request individually, and the vote never occurred. It may occur tonight, as the House is convening again this afternoon.

El Tiempo indicates that when the vote does occur, the referendum to allow President Uribe to seek immediate re-election is likely to be approved.

While it was not possible to pass the law, from the first moments it was more or less clear that the necessary votes were in place.

The first sign was the body’s refusal to approve a request from Rep. Guillermo Rivera to exclude the issue from the day’s agenda. The request was denied by a 93-42 vote.

One way to interpret this, as several congresspeople said, is that it indicated that the 93 representatives who refused to approve Rivera’s proposal are the same ones who want to vote in favor of the referendum.

Aug 25

Today may be the most important day for Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s bid to run for a third straight term in office. The lower house of the country’s Congress, the Chamber of Representatives, is to vote on legislation to hold a referendum this fall. In that vote, Colombians will decide whether to change their constitution – for the second time in four years – to allow Uribe to compete in the May 2010 presidential vote and remain in power for twelve straight years.

A month ago, after opposition figures took over the presidencies of Colombia’s House and Senate, most Colombian analysts were arguing that the re-election referendum was as good as dead. But late last week, some hard-nosed behind-the-scenes politicking convinced Colombia’s Senate to pass a bill.

This legislation, allowing a referendum for a third consecutive re-election, closely resembles what the Senate had already passed. The House, however, had months ago passed a bill interpreted only as allowing a referendum to give Uribe the right to run in 2014, leaving the Congress deadlocked.

It is not clear whether, when it votes tonight, the lower house will change its position and approve a referendum for 2010 reelection. The pro-reelection camp first needs a quorum: 84 of 166 representatives must be present for the vote. Those who do show up are almost certain to vote yes, with the rest boycotting to prevent the possibility of a quorum. (This is what happened in the Senate, when 58 of 102 senators reported for a 56-2 vote in favor of the referendum.)

Whether that 84-member threshold will be reached is the subject of feverish speculation in Colombia’s media. The pro-Uribe camp claims to have more than 85, or as many as 92 or 94 votes, already locked up. Opposition figures, meanwhile, are denouncing that legislators are being offered favors, or otherwise pressured, to vote “yes” to allow the referendum.

If the bill passes the House this evening, its next step is Colombia’s Constitutional Court, which must guarantee that the referendum law meets with several procedural and constitutional requirements (explained in a Flash animation, in Spanish, on the La Silla Vacía website).

The outlook is completely uncertain.

Aug 24
One of the 8 river crossings on the road to Macayepo.

Here is another lengthy post – the second of what should be a three-part series on the Colombian government’s U.S.-supported “Integrated Action” programs in the Montes de María region of northern Colombia, which we visited in July. (The first post is here.)

Written principally by CIP Associate Abigail Poe, the observations below come from meetings with human rights and victims’ leaders from San Onofre and María La Baja; community members and leaders along the “road” to Macayepo (“road” is in quotation marks because in order to arrive in Macayepo, we had to ford a river at least 8 times and drive along a dirt road filled with potholes, mudholes and other variations of disrepair); the governor of Sucre, Jorge Barraza; and the chief of the Marine Corps brigade in the region, Colonel Eduardo Cardona; in addition to informal meetings with civil-society leaders, journalists and academic experts in the area.

Throughout our travels, a few themes were consistent. First, “emerging criminal groups” are rampant in the region and it would be difficult to deny that they are remnants of the old paramilitary structure. Second, the lack of state presence outside of urban centers, along with corruption and armed-group infiltration when the state is present, are obstacles to the attainment of the Integrated Action policy’s stated goals. Third, the problem of land, which some scholars say is the backbone of Colombia’s long history of conflict, is severe, and difficult to resolve. And finally, while some displaced families want to return and others do not, this decision is largely influenced by the lack of basic services and security in their communities of origin.

Emerging criminal groups and security in the region

As mentioned in our earlier post about Montes de María, this region of Colombia is adjacent to Córdoba and northern Antioquia, a cattle-raising zone often referred to as the “birthplace of the paramilitaries.” This small region includes the sites of some of the country’s most notorious and brutal massacres of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

While the AUC began a demobilization process in 2003, remnants still remain and are emerging as new criminal groups, with names like the Paisas, Águilas Negras, Rastrojos and Grupo de Don Mario. By most accounts, their numbers and activities are growing as they compete for dominion of the region’s lucrative drug-trafficking routes.

Fighting between them has brought a spike in homicides after several years of sharp declines. National Police statistics showed 106 homicides in the department of Sucre in the first six months of 2009, more than double the 49 recorded during the same period in 2008.

Colombian Marines talk to a young woman at a local “tienda” outside our meeting in Macayepo.

In San Onofre, a coastal municipality in northern Sucre, we met with victims’ leaders and other displaced members of the communities where some of the region’s major paramilitary massacres took place, including Mampuján and El Salado. After the massacres many of the displaced fled to urban centers – including the county seats of San Onofre and María la Baja, as well as Sincelejo and Cartagena – where the majority remain today.

While the Colombian national and local governments contend that recent paramilitary violence in the area is merely a phenomenon of gangs fighting gangs, those in San Onofre tell a very different story.

Following the demobilization of the AUC, the region calmed down and violence levels subsided. In the past year, however, violence and threats against community members have skyrocketed. The spike in violence is being at least partly attributed to the extradition of top paramilitary leaders to the United States in May 2008, leaving the lower levels of the groups to fight for power and control of important narcotrafficking routes and valuable land.

In San Onofre, we were told that 15 people have been murdered so far in 2009 in the municipality; the body of one victim who disappeared four months prior had been found the week before our visit in a roadside grave. And while violence has not returned to the peak levels of the early 2000s, some victims described their situation as worse, because with so many groups and armed actors “you don’t know who is doing the killing. So we can’t speak out.”

Community members from María La Baja, just over the border in Bolívar department, told us they do not receive as many threats as their counterparts in San Onofre. However, many people are still being killed in their town. “It is normal to wake up and hear that a young man was found dead,” one victims’ leader told us.

These leaders receive threats via telephone, cell phone and even email. Many cannot leave their homes or are hiding in the mountains, and others cannot speak out due to fear of being killed by one of the “emerging criminal groups.” Threats against women’s groups have also increased; one leader was recently murdered in front of her five year old daughter.

While government officials, such as the governor of Sucre, say that “only criminals are being killed” right now, the victims with whom we spoke in San Onofre told us that “those who are killed are not only the bad ones, some are being killed for telling the truth.”

The “new” criminal groups have dramatically increased their recruitment. According to one displaced person in San Onofre, “many of the demobilized paramilitaries returned to their ranks. Of the young men from our neighborhood, we estimate that around 20 have gone with them.” In San Onofre, members of these armed groups will sit in the park and offer 1,000,000 pesos (about US$400) to join their group. It is tempting for these young men and women to join the emerging groups – especially those who are displaced, unemployed and living in extreme poverty. If accepted, the new “member” is given a motorcycle, a gun, a salary, and a sense of purpose.

Lack of legal employment opportunities play a role in the success rate of recruitment, a problem to which the governor of Sucre alluded. He told us, “All of the dead and arrested are displaced persons. The problem is that the government doesn’t give them an employment option, or an alternative. Therefore the displaced are using weapons as a machine of their work. The governor suggested few solutions, however, and he said he has heard no complaints about social leaders or victims’ organizations receiving threats.

Lack of state presence and basic services

For a region near major cities that has been settled for centuries, the communities of Montes de María have a striking lack of government presence. This is a factor of a lack of political will and insufficient resources, themselves often a result of local corruption. We heard indications of a general mistrust in local institutions, complaints about public access to health care and education, a lack of basic services such as potable water, electricity, tertiary roads and sewage outside of urban centers, and a police force that is unable to respond to crimes promptly, or at all.

Remnants of the only contact some campesinos have with local political leaders: campaign ads painted on their homes.

Many of the victims and displaced people we spoke to, especially in San Onofre, did not trust the local government, largely due to its recent history of working closely with paramilitaries. “We do not have the trust necessary to denounce the violence or threats made against us, therefore all of our complaints must be made at the national level in Bogotá,” we were told by one victim. “Paramilitarism is so much a part of the structure here that it is difficult to win, or even to speak out.”

The low level of confidence in the local government is also manifested through a weak police force. We were told that “the police are not carrying out their duties” by both community members and military authorities. The first group attributes this mainly to corruption of the police force via collaboration with narcotraffickers and emerging criminal groups, while the latter attributed it to a lack of resources, telling us that many police squads must patrol without police cars and must even hail taxis to take them to a crime scene. The governor of Sucre also said that while the national government recently dispatched 700 additional officers to the region, they still are unable to reach the rural areas, “where the majority of the violence is now occurring.”

As a result, the police often resort to calling the military to help them respond to crimes and violence. As Colonel Cardona explained the military’s role to us, it became clear that the military – with little guerrilla presence to confront in the region – is playing an ever-increasing police role. Marines are manning control points, gathering intelligence and soliciting arrest warrants. Colonel Cardona appeared frustrated that the military could not carry out arrests. “We were told that the problem of the [emerging] criminal groups is of the police, and that we can only intervene when their capacity is surpassed, but since the beginning the police have been overwhelmed.”

Weak (or non-existent) health and education

In San Onofre we heard complaints about the underfunded and understaffed condition of the public hospital in Sincelejo. We were told that the hospital only has five doctors, when at least 12 are needed, and that it does not even have an ambulance. According to one community member, “This is not due to a lack of resources, but to political corruption.” The community member continued, explaining that seventy percent of the hospital budget is to be allocated to the public facility and 30% to private clinics (GPS). However, those assembled alleged, the mayor’s brother runs the GPS in Sincelejo, and therefore it receives 70% of the budget, while the public hospital barely can afford to pay its staff – a strategy which some claimed is intended to shut down the public hospital in Sincelejo.

In the rural communities we visited, access to health is virtually non-existent. A complete lack of health clinics, doctors, and nurses in these rural areas results in the need to travel to Sincelejo – several hours without a private vehicle – when someone is injured or falls ill. The poor quality of the roads leading to these towns often means that a simple injury or sickness is a death sentence.

While there are some schools in some of the rural communities, their lack of resources results in a poor quality of education. The school in Macayepo does not even have a roof, according to one community member.

Lack of basic services

The lack of services means no potable water, sewage system or electricity in many of the rural communities, especially those above Macayepo in the mountains, where the “road” does not reach.

Delivery of basic services in these rural areas is the responsibility of the local government, which receives some funds for this purpose from the central government. These funds, themselves insufficient, frequently fail to reach their destination. As we were returning to Sincelejo after a day of meetings with rural communities, we made one final stop in Chinulito, a community that sits along the main coastal highway. Community members, along with the sergeant heading the local police detachment, told us of several unanswered petitions to the local government for basic services to reach this community.

They told us that resources for the community’s rebuilding had been stolen by local officials. They allege that the previous mayor of the municipality of which Chinulito is a part (Colosó), now in prison for ties to paramilitaries, stole hundreds of thousands of dollars of central government funds intended for the town. As a result, Chinulito remains without a decent school, health post or potable water. Chinulito is so close to the highway that these services would be easy to provide, yet the community appears just as neglected as those that sit two hours away up a dirt road.

The role of the Colombian armed forces

Behind the soccer goal is the Chinulito-El Carmen road that is being constructed by the Colombian Marines.

Perhaps due to the lack of state presence and civilian government political will in Montes de María, the Colombian armed forces are not just acting to secure the area, but they are also serving as the main “developers.” The military is working with some communities to create a “census” of their most immediate needs. They then take this list to other government ministries and petition for health, education, roads and other services. (This process is a bit more formal – though incipient – in the four municipalities where the CCAI is operating. More on that in the next post.)

Currently, as part of the “Integrated Action” effort, the marine corps (Infantería de Marina) is building the first east-west paved road in Montes de María, which will connect El Carmen to Chinulito. The route, which exists as a dirt road in severe disrepair, will be paved and have multiple bridges over the winding Macayepo River.

Colonel Cardona was quite pleased with this project, indicating that the military hopes to take part in more development projects in the future. When asked why the military should play such an important role in development, he responded that using soldiers for labor is cheaper: the Montes de María highway, he said, is being built for “40 percent less money” than civilian projects contracted out by the country’s road institute. As a result, he continued, “the goal of the military is to eventually carry out projects such as helping to build roads, instead of being in this conflict. Each brigade wants to add a battalion of engineers to carry out constructions such as these.”

In the region, however, we heard complaints that the El Carmen-Chinulito road-building project is being carried out inefficiently, with antiquated equipment and inexperienced military engineers.

The problem of land

The lack of state presence and political will is a major obstacle in achieving a principal stated goal for CCAI in the region: the return of displaced communities. We visited rural communities whose residents said they have not been visited by a state official in years – other than during election season, when someone shows up to paint a campaign slogan on some houses in the community. While the governor of Sucre told us that he did not have the resources to carry out projects for rural dwellers, officials at the CCAI in Bogotá suggested that he did.

Another obstacle for CCAI in Montes de María will be to change the attitudes of local political leaders. According to one staffer at the “Fusion Center” in Cartagena, “The major challenge is to sit down with the political class. The problem is not how to build the road for the community, it is how to change the attitude of the people.” This may be the greatest challenge, as it requires taking on not only the issue of corruption, but also the perhaps even thornier issue of land tenure.

The problem of land distribution in Colombia is not a recent one, nor is it simple. Many scholars cite it as one of the major factors behind the continuation of the conflict. Yet a chief goal of CCAI in Montes de María – the return of displaced communities to their land – will require officials to take on the land problem energetically. What we saw and heard in the region, however, indicates that this will be a monumental task.

CCAI, supported by the Colombian Armed Forces, is conducting a campaign to convince campesinos not to sell their land. However, this does nothing to address the conditions leading them to sell in the first place. When asked who is selling their land, Father Rafael Castillo, of the Montes de María Peace and Development Foundation, listed off characteristics: “campesinos in debt, campesinos without access to credit, campesinos who do not want to return, relatives of those campesinos who have lost their love of the land, and threatened campesinos.”

The situation is worsened by the quality of land in Montes de María (some of the most fertile in Colombia), its proximity to major cities, or a widespread belief that the region has potential for oil and mineral production. Large landowners, investors in “mega-projects” and foreign corporations are making very rapid land purchases in the newly guerrilla-free zone.

Many campesinos are selling their land as a result of the large debts they owe to INCODER, the state land-reform agency – a problem explained in the first post of this series. Large landowners and investors in mega-projects, such as African palm, bitter yucca (which produces starch and can be used for biofuels) and teak, are taking advantage of this situation and offering a price that will cover the farmer’s debt plus a little extra – an offer that, though below current market prices, many campesinos cannot refuse.

We were also told that when a small farmer refuses to sell his land, he risks eventually being forced off by a strategy known as “circling them out.” Basically, an investor buys up all the land around the farmer who does not want to leave, and cuts off his access to roads and services, leaving him no way to leave his land without “trespassing.” Another strategy described to us involves the large landowner allowing his animals to “accidentally” eat the small farmers’ crops.

Other campesinos are being “convinced” to join cooperatives to grow crops such as African palm and bitter yucca. The agreements bind the campesino to growing crops for biofuels on their land for twenty years, a period of time after which the once-fertile soil is depleated. Many community members we met in San Onofre expressed skepticism about these monocultural cooperatives, which they say worsens the problem of food security in the region.

In parts of El Carmen de Bolívar, where rumors are spreading that a large mining project is in the works, land is being bought up so quickly that the local government has had to place an embargo on more land sales.

However, even though the “land grab” taking place in Montes de María appears often to be illegal, due to the intricate problems of land titling, it is being carried out in a way that, by the standards of INCODER and the Ministry of Agriculture, appears to meet all procedural requirements for legality. “This theft of land is being legalized,” a Cartagena-based government official with land responsibilities explained to us.

However, when we asked local community leaders who was buying the land, we received responses ranging from “paisas” (large landholders from Antioquia department) to investors from a group calling itself the “Friends of Montes de María Foundation” to “we don’t know.”

Food security

The “transportation center” in Macayepo, where small farmers can rent burros to travel up the mountain to their plots of land.

Interviewees often alluded to the problem of food security, which promises to worsen as more and more land is bought up for large plantations of biofuel crops. As one leader put it, “the campesino land plot has a very important function: food security.” And that function is weakening.

Rural community members noted that the lack of transportation infrastructure makes it nearly impossible to get crops to market. In order to transport their products, small farmers must first make a long trip by burro to reach their land. They must use the same burro to haul the harvest down the mountain, either all the way to the highway or to a town along a rutted dirt road, like Macayepo, where groups of farmers will chip in to pay for a truck to carry their harvest the remaining distance. This is a lengthy and expensive strategy that leaves very little profit for the small farmers. The road being built through many of these communities will eventually help make this process more efficient, although most of Montes de María’s farmers cultivate land very far from this new road.

Return

CCAI plans to support the return of displaced populations to their original communities in Montes de María. However, many obstacles remain in the way, some described above. We asked what people thought about the viability of return, and asked those who had returned about the problems they were facing. Some told us they did not want to return, others wanted to yet did not have the resources to make the move, while those who had already returned were struggling with virtually no state involvement or assistance.

It was common for government officials to tell us that people did not want to return. Yet from our conversations, it seems that some of those who say they do not want to return now, would do so if the local government provided the basic services necessary for their return to be viable. In San Onofre, these demands included security, roads, rebuilt houses, and basic services, which were referred to as “the basic conditions of dignity.” Because these conditions were not present, many of those we spoke to in San Onofre said they would not return.

Evidence of new life emerges alongside abandoned homes as some of the displaced begin to return.

Another element that must exist in order for displaced persons to return is education. In many cases, males are returning to farm their land, leaving their families behind in towns and cities so that their children can go to school – an opportunity that does not exist in rural communities.

We were also told that many displaced persons fear returning, especially through a program run by the local government or military, since they saw few guarantees that they would not be displaced again by violence. This fear resonated in many of the meetings we held. People were wary of working with the state without a guarantee that the program would continue for more than two years, for fear of retaliation from illegal armed groups once the state – in their view, inevitably – disappears.

The rural communities we visited were scarcely populated by displaced persons who had returned on their own initiative – perhaps 20 to 25 percent of the original pre-2000 population. These community members felt empowered to do things on their own, and noted that “we couldn’t sit back and wait for someone from Bogotá to come help us.”

Not only have they returned to cultivate their land and continue with their lives, but they have initiated efforts to educate about democracy and human rights, and to work to keep the youth from being enticed by violence. However, the basic disrepair of their houses and the lack of basic services indicated the need for a great deal more assistance from the local government. They cannot do this alone, in a vacuum.

Conclusion

A main goal of CCAI in Montes de María, as presented to us at the Cartagena Fusion Center, is the return of displaced people and victims to their communities and the creation of a political pact between the community and the local government. However, we learned that some huge hurdles stand in the way of actually achieving this goal. Emerging criminal groups threaten human rights and victims’ leaders, land is an incredibly sticky subject, and true buy-in and support from the local government are far from guaranteed.

We were struck by how differently the government and military talked about the Montes de María, compared to the descriptions offered by those who live there. Government and military officials said the zone was secure and that there were almost no reports of murders of victims’ leaders, or even threats. They told us that people were not returning because they are content with their lives in the urban centers, and that those who are getting killed or threatened are the “bad guys.” It is true that many displaced campesinos do not want to return to their communities because, after eight or nine years, they are now used to living in cities and towns. However, if access to health, education, and a sustainable livelihood existed in their original communities, we were assured that far more of the pre-2000 population of Montes de María would gladly return to their land.

Aug 22

Regular blogging will resume soon. I’m near the end of a week’s vacation with very little Internet access. I wrote the following bit of wisdom yesterday, very slowly, on my phone:

Right now I’m on a beach in Virginia, watching some kids kicking what’s left of a sand castle my daughter and I built about an hour ago.

That got me thinking about how building a great sand castle would require defending it, too. A really ambitious sand castle project might even call for hiring a bigger, stronger kid to guard it from other kids.

But then there’s a risk that the bigger, stronger kid might disagree with the way you’re building your own sand castle, elbow you aside and start building it himself. Or you may have a creative disagreement with a fellow castle-builder, and you may find yourself trying to bribe the bigger, stronger castle-guard into ejecting your adversary.

In either case, the castle-guard kid would need a lot of discipline to stay uninvolved and keep out of the castle-building business.

So anyway, I guess I’m on the beach thinking about civil-military relations.

I’ll be back in a few more days.

Aug 13

Monday’s meeting of the South American Union (Unasur) presidents in Quito was dominated by concerns about negotiations between the United States and Colombia to allow U.S. military personnel to use several Colombian bases. Colombian President Álvaro Uribe did not attend the meeting.

(Here is an overview of what we know about what Colombia and the United States are negotiating; it hasn’t changed much since we wrote it three weeks ago. The main change is that two more bases have been added to the list of facilities U.S. personnel can access, apparently at the Colombian government’s request. They are the army bases in Tolemaida, Tolima and Larandia, Caquetá. The basing negotiations could conclude as early as this weekend, says Colombia’s armed forces chief, Gen. Freddy Padilla.)

Some of the region’s elected leaders from the far left had hoped the declaration from the Quito meeting would condemn the basing deal. The presidents were unable to reach consensus on that, but some of the region’s more centrist leaders continued to express concern about the arrangement being discussed between Washington and Bogotá.

One of those leaders, Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, made a concrete proposal to Washington: that U.S. government representatives meet with the region’s leaders to explain the agreement and the U.S. government’s intentions. “UNASUR could invite the U.S. government to a detailed discussion regarding its relations with South America. This will be resolved through a lot of conversation, much debate, the speaking of truths. People will have to hear things they don’t like,” Lula said during the Quito meeting.

This is a perfectly reasonable proposal. A joint meeting with high U.S. government officials – or even President Obama himself, perhaps during the UN General Assembly in New York in September – is a good idea.

Such a meeting would help undo the damage done by the Obama administration’s disastrous rollout of the basing arrangement. The approach so far has combined hyper-secrecy from Washington, leaks to the Colombian media mainly from Colombian government sources, and – in a move that cannot make the Colombian government happy – leaving Colombian President Álvaro Uribe to defend the deal on his own, spending an entire week traveling throughout South America to hear each country’s concerns about the proposed U.S. military presence.

Lula’s proposed meeting also makes sense because once you get past Hugo Chávez’s hugely overheated rhetoric, it makes perfect sense for the region’s governments to be concerned about a foreign power increasing its military presence, and mission, on the continent they share. And it makes sense for this concern to grow when the foreign power does not even notify them of its intentions. The United States is creating a new capability in South America, and capabilities often get used.

While South American concerns are important, the Obama administration also needs to be far more transparent to the American people. As things stand right now, the basing agreement can go forward without any need for the U.S. Congress to act to approve it. But that doesn’t mean that we should be in the disgraceful situation of getting most of our information about the impending deal from the Colombian press.

Obviously, we don’t ask that the U.S. government reveal the content of ongoing negotiations. Talks between governments routinely happen in secret. But we need to know more about what our government’s intentions are.

Until Colombian media outlets started revealing more details about the basing plan in early July, we were under the impression that the United States and Colombia were negotiating a deal to replace a capability being lost with the exit of U.S. assets from a base in the Pacific coastal city of Manta, Ecuador. There, since 1999, approximately 200-300 U.S. military personnel and contractors worked on a mission limited strictly to counternarcotics, specifically monitoring the Eastern Pacific off the coast of South America for potential aerial and maritime drug trafficking. The U.S. presence at Manta – itself a partial substitute for Howard Air Force Base in Panama, which the U.S. military vacated in 1999 – has ceased operations and will close for good in October, as the 10-year agreement has expired and Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa strongly opposes renewing it.

What we have heard about the Colombia deal, however, indicates that the new U.S. presence there will go way beyond Manta’s limited mission. It will support not just counter-narcotics, but “counter-terrorism,” a very vague term in a country in the midst of an armed conflict.

There is an urgent need for more transparency from the U.S. government. More information and responsiveness to questions would help defuse tensions in the region, and is a necessary element of a foreign policy that is accountable to the American people.

Transparency must begin with clear, specific responses to these seven rather basic questions. So far, none of them has been addressed in public.

1. How close will U.S. personnel stationed at the bases – both military and contractors – get to hostilities in Colombia? What is the risk to them?

2. How will U.S. personnel stationed at the bases be contributing to, or otherwise participating in, ongoing military operations in Colombia’s armed conflict? For example, will it be providing real-time intelligence and targeting information about guerrillas or other illegal armed groups?

3. Will activities based at these facilities be limited to Colombian territory and airspace, or will the United States insist on the right to fly over neighboring countries as well?

4. Does the U.S. government view these bases as “lily pads” that will give it the ability to carry out contingency operations anywhere in the region? If not, how is it different?

(For several years, the Defense Department has indicated its desire to establish informal, flexible basing arrangements like these in order to have a forward presence as a jumping-off point. These have been colloquially calledlily pads,” and arrangements have been made for several such facilities in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Africa. Instead of a base, widely cited defense analyst Thomas P.M. Barnett wrote this week, “Think of them as the networking equivalent of an ATM: offering some basic services but hardly constituting a bank branch. And like an ATM, these facilities are to a large degree designed to obviate the requirement of a larger, dedicated presence.” Obviously, a frog jumping off of a lily pad is jumping to somewhere else; Colombia’s neighbors see themselves as likely destinations.)

5. What is the likelihood that the administration will be asking Congress to raise or eliminate the existing “troop cap” (800 military and 600 U.S. citizen contractors) limiting U.S. involvement in Colombia within, say, 3 years? Can the Obama administration guarantee that it will not seek to increase or break the troop cap as a result of activities at the Colombian bases?

(As of June 19, the Washington Post reported last week, there were 268 U.S. military personnel and 308 U.S. citizen contractors present in Colombia. If the military presence is currently one-third of the cap and the contractor presence is half of the cap even without the bases, how close will U.S. personnel come to breaking the cap once they move into the bases?)

6. Will the physical assets stationed at the bases in Colombia be different from those that were based at Manta? Will the U.S. military be stationing the same aircraft as before? If not, how will the array of planes and equipment be different?

7. The three air force bases in the seven-base package are all located to the east of the Andes mountains from the Pacific Ocean. How will U.S. assets be able to cover the eastern Pacific drug-trafficking vector – which was the main purpose of the Manta base – without a presence on the Pacific coast? What is the likelihood that this move will actually make it easier for narcos to transship drugs through the Pacific?

(We understand that the Palanquero base, in Cundinamarca near Bogotá, will be the main facility covering the Pacific, as Manta did. Three chains of the Andes mountains lie between Palanquero and the Pacific. How will this contemplate interdiction? For instance, if radars discover a boat or plane suspected of shipping cocaine in the Pacific zone, how long will it take for an aircraft based at Palanquero to respond?)

Aug 08
  • Asked on Thursday about plans to locate U.S. troops on Colombian bases, State Department spokesman Robert Wood simply said, “The United States has no plans to put bases in Colombia,” and went on to the next question. This curt, disingenuous response is terribly unhelpful at a time when Hugo Chávez is scoring political points railing against the ongoing base negotiations, even moderate leaders like Lula and Bachelet are voicing opposition, and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe had to spend an entire week traveling throughout South America to explain the base proposal to the region’s presidents. The way the basing deal has been presented to the region – “we’re increasing our presence on your continent, our mission will be broader, but we’re not going to tell you anything about it” – has undone much of the progress that President Obama had been making on U.S.-Latin American relations.
    • Note added 8:30AM August 8: President Obama went beyond the State Department’s reticence in an exchange with Hispanic media reporters late on the afternoon of Friday, August 7: “There have been those in the region who have been trying to play this up as part of a traditional anti-Yankee rhetoric. This is not accurate. … We have had a security agreement with Colombia for many years now. We have updated that agreement. We have no intent in establishing a U.S. military base in Colombia.”
  • This press briefing took place the same day that the Wall Street Journal reported on a letter the State Department sent to Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) with the headline “U.S. Decides Not to Impose Sanctions on Honduras.” This inspired the following exchange on Honduras, which hardly needs additional comment.

MR. WOOD: [W]e’re going to continue to try to convince both parties and go from there. But a coup took place in the country, and –
QUESTION: Well, you haven’t officially legally declared it a coup yet.
MR. WOOD:
We have called it a coup. What we have said is that we legally can’t determine it to be a military coup. That review is still ongoing.
QUESTION:
Why does it take so long to review whether there’s a military coup or not?
MR. WOOD:
Well, look, there are a lot of legal issues here that have to be carefully examined before we can make that determination, and it requires information being shared amongst a number of parties. We need to be able to take a look at that information and make our best legal judgment as to whether or not –
QUESTION:
It seems to be taking a very long time.
MR. WOOD:
Well, things take time when you’re dealing with these kinds of very sensitive legal issues.

  • Indigenous leaders were killed in Putumayo and Cauca, Colombia, this week. At least eight indigenous people have been killed in Cauca since July, and 67 so far this year in Colombia. Following a July 22-27 visit to Colombia, the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya, issued a press statement placing particular blame on “illegal armed groups, especially the FARC,” for attacks on indigenous Colombians. The statement also notes that “allegations of human rights violations by members of the security forces persist and remain unresolved.”
  • After four years, Colombia’s prosecutor-general (fiscal general), Mario Iguarán, finished his term and left office. Assessments of his performance were generally positive, noting that although Iguarán served as a vice-minister of justice under President Uribe, he frequently showed independence from his old boss by pursuing politically sensitive cases like “para-politics,” “false positives” and other human rights cases against the military. (The prosecutor-general’s office is a separate branch of government in Colombia.) Iguarán’s replacement has not been ratified. President Uribe last month sent a list of three possible nominees for the Supreme Court’s approval, the most prominent among them Uribe’s former defense minister and OAS ambassador, Camilo Ospina. The court has so far refused to approve any of the three. It sent a letter to President Uribe “whether he insists on presenting the same names or whether he would prefer to reconsider them and present a new list of nominees.”
  • Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez got a lot of attention this week for his opposition to U.S. use of Colombian bases, his denial that Swedish-made rockets were smuggled from Venezuela to the FARC during his government, and his intention to buy Russian tanks. Attacks on the media inside Venezuela received less attention. A group of government supporters stormed the headquarters of the country’s remaining pro-opposition television network, Globovisión, and set off tear-gas canisters. (President Chávez condemned the attack and promised to punish the ardently pro-Chávez ringleader.) More disturbingly, as The Guardian and others reported,

The government’s telecommunications agency said it would revoke the licences of up to 240 radio stations, almost 40% of the total, citing irregular paperwork. … The move followed last week’s introduction of a draft law to jail journalists and broadcasters who “harm the interests of the state”, “cause panic” or “disturb social peace.”

  • On the 184th anniversary of the foundation of Bolivia’s armed forces, La Razón, a center-right La Paz daily, published a group of articles looking at the current state of civil-military relations in the country. One of the principal changes during the Evo Morales government has been greater military involvement in social and economic development projects. “At some point we have to change the concept of support for development, which includes them [the armed forces] as a helper. I think they should be the pillar of development,” Defense Minister Walker San Miguel says in an interview.
Aug 04

Following on Friday’s too-brief post, here is a fuller discussion of the reasons why President Álvaro Uribe is suddenly facing serious obstacles to a 2010 re-election bid.

We rely heavily here on direct citations from Colombian press and web sources, whose analysis of the country’s politics deserves translation into English.

Four reasons a constitutional reform referendum allowing re-election is unlikely this fall:

1. The congressional leadership elections during the week of July 20 were, in a sense, the final nail in the coffin. As they began a new session, Colombia’s House and Senate elected new presidents, both of them from center-right parties that have been firmly pro-Uribe since their creation. The Senate is now led by Javier Cáceres of the Radical Change party, and the House is headed by Édgar Gómez of the Citizens’ Convergence party.

According to La Silla Vacía, both politicians are on the verge of leaving the pro-Uribe bloc.

Cáceres is considered to be in opposition. The reason? Within the pro-Uribe bloc they believe that Cáceres will be loyal to Germán Vargas [a right-wing senator, the head of Cáceres' Radical Change party, who supported Uribe until earlier this year, when he publicly opposed re-election], and not to the government, since he needs Radical Change’s approval in order to run for Senate in 2010. … As representatives of this party confirmed to La Silla Vacía, Gómez struck an agreement months ago with César Gaviria [the former president, now head of the opposition Liberal party] to join the Liberal Party, where he began his political career and in which he will carry out his 2010 campaign, during the second half of this year.

La Silla Vacía speculates that Gómez and the Liberals may push hard for approval of a new Victims’ Law – which was overturned by President Uribe in June – because “it will be a popular campaign issue for them in 2010.”

The chambers’ presidents are not as powerful as their U.S. counterparts (the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader), but have significant control over the legislative agenda, La Silla Vacía explains.

Cáceres and Gómez choose who speaks in the plenary sessions, which bills deserve priority and decide when a quorum is sufficient to begin debating a bill. If they turn a blind eye and fail to count attendance at the right moment, they can sink a bill. They also exercise influence over some congresspeople, as they define which senators and representatives deserve a change in their official car or office arrangements. This extra power makes them able to tip the balance when it comes to choosing committee chairmanships.

How did the opposition – still a minority of Congress – carry out this takeover? La Silla Vacía explains:

Many ask how it was that the President lost control of such important positions at such a crucial moment for the referendum. The explanation is the same as always: bureaucratic resentments in the small Uribista parties who feel abandoned by the president. There were also several Uribistas’ concealed loyalties to candidates like “Uribito” [Andrés Felipe Arias, Uribe's former Agriculture Minister and likely Conservative party candidate if Uribe does not run] and Juan Manuel Santos [Uribe's former Defense Minister and a likely candidate of the Unity "La U" party if Uribe does not run], which ended up strengthening the opposition.

2. Time is running out. Semana describes a rapidly closing window for changing the Constitution in time for the 2010 voting.

While it is dead politically, technically it is still in its death throes. According to the Law of Guarantees, November 30 is the deadline by which the President must announce whether or not he intends to be a candidate for a third term. But in these four months two legally required phases must be overcome within very narrow time periods. First, the Constitutional Court’s revision of the bill, which during the last re-election took more than three months. And second, the convening of elections by the Civil Registry which, according to that agency, would take a similar amount of time. In other words, two processes that normally could take between six and eight months would have to be reduced by half. If the Uribista machinery were the steamroller that it was in the past, those two processes could be “railroaded through” in that time, despite the controversy it would inspire. But if anything was clear after July 20 [when the new congressional leadership was chosen], it was that the pro-Uribe bloc in Congress may still be a majority movement, but now it is not a steamroller.

3. The two chambers of Congress are unlikely to resolve a key difference in their referendum bills: the possibility of consecutive re-election. The Senate passed a bill for a referendum on whether to allow Uribe to run again in 2010. The House bill instead is written in a way that has been interpreted to allow re-election only in 2014. The House-Senate committee charged with “reconciling” the two bills does not appear likely to yield to the Senate’s 2010 version, writes Semana.

The majority of the 25 conferees named by the House have refused to serve on the committee, arguing that they fear legal consequences [more on that below]. However, there is an additional, weightier reason that they never invoke in public: that they don’t believe in the referendum anymore. And if the moment to turn the page is to be the reconciliation of the bills, then that moment has arrived.

4. Too many members of Congress fear legal consequences if they support the referendum. The 2004 constitutional change allowing Uribe to run in 2006 passed only because undecided members of a House committee were improperly offered favors. One of those members, Yidis Medina, is now in prison for accepting the power to name her associates to several lucrative positions in exchange for her pro-re-election vote. That scandal, called “Yidis-politics,” has cast a long shadow on attempts to move a second re-election forward. Notes Semana:

The “Yidis-politics” precedent has made it so that not a single government official even dares insinuate that he might be offering any favors to a legislator in exchange for their support of re-election. Those who did this in the last election ended up in trouble with the law. In addition, the 86 legislators who voted for the referendum [in December] before the National Electoral Council approved the signature count [on the petitions for the bill to be considered] are being investigated by the Supreme Court.

What might happen next, then? Key members of the Uribe government and the leadership of pro-Uribe parties insist that they are still trying to get the referendum bill reconciled by the middle of August, despite the obstacles. If that fails, their next options could be:

1. Convene a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, pushing off the 2010 elections if necessary. This is unlikely According to Semana, “Some recalcitrant ‘Furibistas’ [furious Uribistas, of course] mention the possibility of a legislative act or even a constituent assembly after the referendum sinks. None of that will fly in the Congress. As ex-President César Gaviria affirmed, ‘If the Uribista legislators weren’t able to elect their own congressional leadership, how are they going to process a constitutional reform in such a short period of time?’”

2. Have a referendum to allow a non-consecutive re-election in 2014. “What could happen,” Semana believes, “is a formula that could allow Álvaro Uribe to return to power in 2014. This would be a transaction which would give a little satisfaction to the president and allow everyone to wash their hands.” However, the magazine adds, Uribe’s return would be a poor idea.

Colombian democracy would be more fluid if, after eight years in government, its ex-presidents were unable to return, as is the case in the United States. An ex-president with a possibility of returning would cast a very heavy shadow during the interim. It is hard to imagine the Calvary suffered by Uribe’s replacement knowing that, among his followers, there is an expectation of monarchical restoration.

Will Uribe really just leave power next year? Some analysts are unwilling to believe that the president’s re-election drive is over. “The referendum is moribund, but re-election is alive and kicking,” writes Claudia López in El Tiempo today. “We cannot declare victory,” adds opposition supporter Daniel García-Peña in El Espectador. “Let’s not forget that in this country magical surrealism outweighs institutional reality, and the ‘Rule of Opinion’ kills the ‘Rule of Law’ (in the chess sense of the word).”

García-Peña, along with many other commentators in Colombia, refers to a controversial new rhetorical figure that keeps popping up in President Uribe’s speeches of late. The president keeps saying that the “Rule of Opinion” (Estado de Opinión) “is the superior phase” of the “Rule of Law” (Estado de Derecho). It is not clear what Uribe means by this – his language is rather abstract, poetic and vaguely populist – but it has many observers concerned that it implies a popular president’s prerogative to challenge institutional constraints. Including constraints on re-election? Nobody knows.