Jan 29
Para-politicians and their “avatars,” from Pequeño Tirano
  • Colombia’s biggest political controversy of the week came from President Uribe’s proposal, apparently unconsulted with Medellín authorities, to fight gang violence by paying the city’s students who serve as informants passing intelligence to the authorities.
  • President Obama’s brief “State of the Union” mention of trade with Colombia raised hopes in Bogotá that the White House might seek congressional ratification of the free-trade agreement signed in 2006, even though U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield warned a week ago that trade agreements never win approval in legislative election years. Colombian Ambassador to the United States Carolina Barco counseled patience, and former Bush Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega noted that Obama’s language did not state clearly that he intends to act for the agreement’s ratification.
  • The Colombian non-governmental organization CODHES reported its estimate of the number of Colombians newly displaced by violence in 2009: 286,389 people. That number, while shockingly high, is actually lower than the group’s 2008 estimate of 380,863 newly displaced people.
  • A very strange story in El Tiempo covers an event the armed forces held for the accused Soacha “false positives” defendants, who were recently released from jail as they await trial for killing Colombian civilians. The 46 soldiers participated in aromatherapy and psycho-social workshops, while their visiting family members were entertained: clowns for the children and massages and makeovers for the women.
  • Of every 100 guerrillas that the Colombian government has taken out of commission, estimates José Fernando Isaza, the FARC manages to recruit 83 new ones.
  • The VerdadAbierta.com website has a long and disturbing interview with “Jorge Pirata,” one of the leaders of the paramilitaries who dominated Colombia’s eastern plains in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In text and video, he tells the history of the AUC’s brutal rise in the region south and east of Bogotá.
  • The “Pequeño Tirano” cartoon is back, this time mocking the relatives, or “avatars,” of jailed para-politicians who are running for office in Colombia’s March congressional elections.
  • As Porfirio Lobo takes over the presidency of Honduras and Manuel Zelaya leaves for exile in the Dominican Republic, the Tegucigalpa government’s treasury is down to its last US$50 million. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela warned yesterday that Washington will not support Honduras’ return to the OAS until President Lobo takes steps foreseen in the San José Accord, like forming a “unity government” and establishing a “truth commission” for crimes committed after the June 2009 coup.
  • “Bloggings by Boz” excerpts all references to Latin America in the draft Quadrennial Defense Review that leaked this week. It’s definitely not too much to read in one sitting.
  • Recently re-inaugurated President Evo Morales just named a new high command and now wants to change the Bolivian armed forces’ doctrine. “My great dream, my great desire,” he said, “is that our armed forces be internationally recognized as anti-capitalist.”
  • Chile is buying 18 F-16 fighter planes from the United States for $270 million. “We don’t want to go out and hit anybody” with the country’s fleet of 44 F-16s, said Chile’s armed forces chief, Ricardo Ortega. But “everyone who is watching us, everyone around us, now knows that we have the capacity to hit hard, that is, it’s best that they leave us alone.”
  • A USA Today/Gallup poll finds 63% of Americans favoring a longer-term U.S. military presence in Haiti, going beyond the emergency phase until “basic services are restored.” Meanwhile U.S. military logistics authorities estimate that most troops will pull out of Haiti within three to six months.
  • In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez’s vice president and defense minister, Ramón Carrizález, abruptly quit on Monday, citing “personal reasons.” Some Venezuelan analysts speculate that he quit over disagreement with the role of Cuban officers in the Venezuelan military’s high command, or that it was part of a “loyalty test” amid rising internal discontent within the armed forces.
  • New America Media reports on Latin American militaries’ increasing use of unmanned drone aircraft, most of them purchased from Israel.
Jan 28
Picture from the El Nuevo Herald coverage of the mass grave.

Miami’s El Nuevo Herald and Spain’s Público have run stories in the past two days about a shocking find in La Macarena, about 200 miles south of Bogotá.

Residents say that after it entered the strongly guerrilla-controlled zone in the mid-2000s, Colombia’s Army began dumping unidentified bodies in a mass grave near a local cemetery. The grave may contain as many as 2,000 bodies.

Público reports:

Since 2005 the Army, whose elite units are deployed in the surrounding area, has been depositing behind the local cemetery hundreds of cadavers with the order that they be buried without names. …

Jurist Jairo Ramírez, the secretary of the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Colombia, accompanied a delegation of British legislators to the site several weeks ago, when the magnitude of the La Macarena grave began to be discovered. “What we saw was chilling,” he told Público. “An infinity of bodies, and on the surface hundreds of white wooden plaques with the inscription NN [name unknown] and dates from 2005 until today.”

Ramírez adds: “The Army commander told us that they were guerrillas killed in combat, but the people in the region told us of a multitude of social leaders, campesinos and community human rights defenders who disappeared without a trace.”

El Nuevo Herald reports:

A spokesman of the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) in Bogotá revealed to El Nuevo Herald that a mission from that institution’s Technical Investigations Corps (CTI) has already gone to the cemetery and confirmed the existence of “a large number” of cadavers in the grave, though it only made a few excavations.

“We became the site for the depositing of the war dead,” declared Eliécer Vargas Moreno, mayor of the municipality. …

Residents of La Macarena interviewed over the phone by El Nuevo Herald, under the promise that their identities would not be revealed, expressed their suspicion that among the bodies are relatives who disappeared during the last four years. They denied that the bodies are those of guerrillas and asked for the chance to prove it.

Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office will make its first excavations at the site in mid-March. While we are not jumping to conclusions, we will be watching this case closely.

La Macarena, the site of the grave, has been a very important site of U.S.-aided military operations since the mid-2000s. In this area, the U.S. government supported and advised the Colombian Army’s 2004-2006 “Plan Patriota” military offensive, and since 2007 has supported the “Plan for the Integral Consolidation of La Macarena” or PCIM, part of the new “Integrated Action” framework that is now guiding much U.S. assistance.

Jan 28

Posted to the website of El Tiempo, Colombia’s main newspaper, early this morning:

Posted minutes ago to the website of El Tiempo:

Note as of 10:15AM January 29: Semana magazine is reporting that Ovalle, 54, died of cancer diagnosed in December.

Jan 27

Note as of 1:00 AM January 28: After 13 hours of deliberation today, El Tiempo reports, Colombia’s National Electoral Council decided to suspend the ADN party, citing the active role played by imprisoned politicians.

(This post was composed with research assistance from CIP Intern Cristina Salas.)

As Colombia inches closer to its March 14 legislative elections, it is growing ever clearer that the country has not left “para-politics” behind.

The last time Colombia reelected its Congress, in March 2006, about a third of the winners ended up under investigation, on trial or in prison for ties to mass-murdering, drug-trafficking paramilitary groups who were politically powerful in many regions. (Download a recent list here.) The resulting scandal raised public awareness of organized crime’s infiltration of Colombia’s government, and spurred Colombia’s Supreme Court to attempt an ambitious housecleaning in the legislature. But the phenomenon continues in the current election cycle.

Since the 2006 cycle, three parties all but ceased to exist because of the huge number of office-holders who ended up in trouble for sponsoring, aiding and abetting, or otherwise making deals with the right-wing militias. But “Colombia Viva,” “Colombia Democrática” and “Convergencia Ciudadana” are back in new guises, running candidates for the March vote.

The three parties have undergone a makeover, reemerging as Alianza Democrática Nacional (National Democratic Alliance) and Partido de Integración Nacional (National Integration Party), but maintaining the legal registrations of Convergencia Ciudadana and Colombia Democrática, respectively. (This El Tiempo editorial asserts that they maintain the legal registrations of Convergencia and Colombia Viva.)

Alianza Democrática Nacional, or “ADN” (the Spanish initials of DNA, as in genetic code), was created in early December by former members of Colombia Viva, Convergencia Ciudadana and Colombia Democrática, the latter party founded by President Álvaro Uribe’s second cousin Mario Uribe, who is currently under investigation for paramilitary ties. Colombia Viva included Senator Vicente Blel, sentenced this week to seven years in prison, and Álvaro García, accused of conspiring with paramilitaries who carried out a notoriously horrific string of massacres in the Montes de María region during the early 2000s. Juan Carlos Martínez, a Convergencia Ciudadana senator from Valle del Cauca, is accused of helping to organize the ADN party from his prison cell.

Former members of Convergencia Ciudadana created the Partido de Integración Nacional, or “PIN”, after the earlier party ceased to exist because its founder, ex-senator Luis Alberto Gil, was jailed and another one of its leaders, ex-governor of Santander Hugo Aguilar, came under judicial investigation.

Colombian analysts say that these political parties exist in part to support the campaigns of political heirs of the “para-politicians,” thus guaranteeing their continued influence and local political power. As the scandal leaves voids in local political leadership structures, the parties aim to fill them with the scandal-tarred bosses’ friends, relatives or allies. In the candidates list for the upcoming elections, for instance, ex-senator Gil has been replaced by his wife, and ex-governor Aguilar by his son. (More examples of family members serving as substitutes can be found in this piece in the Colombian newsmagazine Cambio.)

The head of the largest “mainstream” pro-Uribe party, former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos of the “Partido Social de la Unidad” or “U”, claims that the party is doing its utmost to avoid paramilitary influence. (Several “U” party legislators have been embroiled in the para-politics scandal, though the party was not hit as hard as the three parties being re-packaged today.) Santos announced that all “U” candidates for the upcoming Congress elections will be investigated for ties with illegal groups, including the signing of sworn statements and verification by an “ethics committee.”

Left-of-center Semana columnist María Jimena Duzán says that those who do not pass muster in La U will end up in the ADN or PIN parties, “enchanted creations conceived at the last minute by the Palace of Nariño [Colombian 'White House'] to house the scum of the paramilitary mafia that the ‘U’ no longer has the luxury of admitting.”

Meanwhile, ADN and PIN, their campaigns flush with cash, are blanketing several regions of Colombia with advertisements professing their support for President Uribe, hoping to ride his coat-tails back into office, four years after the “para-politics” scandal first broke.

Jan 26

Three Senate Democrats on committees with jurisdiction over U.S. aid to Colombia sent a letter to Secretary of State Clinton on January 21. The letter calls for a changed U.S. approach to Colombia: a reduced military focus, greater support for civilian governance including the judicial system, a stronger priority on human rights and democratic institutions, and increased openness to facilitating a negotiated end to the conflict.

The three senators are:

  • Russell Feingold (D-Wisconsin), who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee;
  • Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Western Hemisphere Subcommittee; and
  • Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), who chairs the Senate Appropriations State/Foreign Operations Subcommittee.

Here is a brief excerpt. Or download the whole 3-page letter as a 1.3-megabyte PDF file.

Reports suggest further deterioration of the rule of law and basic rights in Colombia in other areas as well. The well-documented abuses of the presidential intelligence agency, the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS), are particularly troubling. … Colombia’s highest officials continue to publicly denigrate human rights defenders in ways that jeopardize their safety. Additionally, a possible third term for the current president threatens to further erode the checks and balances that help protect Colombia’s fragile democracy.

In light of these trends, the State Department’s September 8th decision to certify that Colombia has met the human rights conditions in U.S. law was very disappointing, as were statements indicating that the Administration’s new base-access agreement with Colombia is intended to deepen relations with the Colombian military. President Obama’s words of concern about human rights abuses during President Uribe’s June 2009 visit were welcome and helpful. But it is also essential that the administration send an unambiguous signal that these abuses are unacceptable and that stopping them is a priority and a prerequisite for our continued partnership with the Colombian government.

Jan 26

A new post at the “Just the Facts” program blog discusses two trends:

  • The State Department’s apparent acquiescence in a Defense Department plan to increase, from $350 to $500 million, a controversial military-aid program run out of the Pentagon’s budget.
  • A December proposal (PDF) from Secretary of Defense Gates to Secretary of State Clinton to create a common State-Defense “pool” of funding for both security assistance and development aid.

Both trends weaken diplomatic management of military assistance to Latin America and the rest of the world, and could also weaken congressional oversight and protections – including human rights protections. There appears to be a pitched bureaucratic battle going on, and we’ll be following it.

Jan 25

Chileans didn’t elect Sebastián Piñera a week ago Sunday because of their antipathy for Hugo Chávez. Bolivians didn’t re-elect Evo Morales in December out of admiration for Venezuela’s president. Nor will Chávez be an issue on February 7, when a center-left and a rightist candidate face off in Costa Rica.

If you read Jackson Diehl’s column in today’s Washington Post, though, you might come away with the impression that Latin American politics today are “all Chávez, all the time.” That the region is lined up, cold-war style, in monolithically opposed blocs, with ideological tides ever advancing and receding.

Latin America has quietly passed through a tipping point in the ideological conflict that has polarized the region — and paralyzed U.S. diplomacy — for most of the past decade.

This is true in a few politically polarized flashpoint countries, such as post-coup Honduras, increasingly authoritarian Nicaragua, or Colombia, whose war of words with Chávez continues. But in most of Latin America today, elections are quietly and undramatically ratifying presidents or parties in power (Bolivia, probably Costa Rica), or uneventfully bringing oppositions to power (Panama, Mexico’s legislative elections, Chile, probably Brazil later this year). There is no regional cold war.

Instead, it’s hard to discern any pattern in the current set of polls and political outcomes. To the extent that there is one, Latin American voters’ mood is turning against angry, extreme, polarizing leaders of all political stripes. Approval ratings seem to favor moderate pragmatists of the right and left (Martinelli in Panama, Funes in El Salvador, Bachelet in Chile and Lula in Brazil). They are less kind to more combative, partisan leaders (Ortega in Nicaragua, Fernández in Argentina, and even Chávez and Colombia’s Uribe who, while still quite popular, has seen a modest decline in his ratings). An exception is Morales in Bolivia, who won a landslide despite a very combative political style.

Whatever the regional pattern, it seems to have little to do with the personality or influence of Hugo Chávez. In fact, as Diehl points out, Chávez is in trouble at home, facing rising crime rates, power shortages, inflation and a steep currency devaluation. The Venezuelan leader has reacted by hardening still further, nationalizing retail stores, pulling the plug on cable TV networks, and other steps that risk misfiring politically in advance of September legislative elections. As the Venezuelan leader’s direction appears more erratic, the Colombian magazine Semana notes, one ally, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, is visibly distancing himself.

Diehl writes that “Hugo Chávez’s ’socialism for the 21st century’ has been defeated and is on its way to collapse.” That may be. But if true, it would be a huge error to imagine a significant change in U.S. relations with Latin America as a result.

As president of a country of 28 million people, Hugo Chávez’s ability to determine his neighbors’ political destiny was never great. His influence may be less of a concern than what he leaves behind: if the Chávez government should implode under the weight of its mounting economic and social pressures — a possibility that can’t be dismissed within the next five years — it could leave a chaotic competition to fill a power vacuum, making the whole region less secure.

Meanwhile, the popular anger and aspirations that first elected Chávez could easily manifest themselves among voters in another country, sending new leaders of the left to power. And as this happens, still other countries may move rightward.

There are no cold wars in Latin America, no rising or falling tides to be fostered or contained. Just democracies going in different directions, occasionally directions quite distant from the United States. Here in the United States, we have to get used to that, and stop viewing each electoral outcome as a harbinger of triumph or tragedy.

Jan 22
The Colombian Army is carrying out an offensive against the FARC’s powerful 48th front in Putumayo this week. (Colombian Army photo)
  • Of Colombian officers and soldiers facing trial for the 2008 murder of young men in the Bogotá suburb of Soacha, the number now freed from preventive detention because of lapsed prosecution deadlines now stands at 38. The men are accused of presenting their victims’ bodies as those of armed-group members killed in combat, an alarmingly frequent practice that has come to be known in Colombia as “false positives.” Mothers of the victims — whether in Soacha or in other cases — are furious. “We want truth. They let them go so they can go and kill more boys,” said one.
  • The La Silla Vacía website has a very useful – and troubling – interactive timeline of the judicial delays and procedural maneuvers that caused the accused soldiers’ legal processes to drag on so long that, under the rules of Colombia’s new oral justice system, they had to be set free pending trial.
  • For similar reasons, ten soldiers implicated in the 2005 San José de Apartadó massacre could be freed in February.
  • The “false positives” scandal was among the topics in a debate Wednesday between two opposition presidential candidates, Rafael Pardo of the center-left Liberal Party and Gustavo Petro of the leftist Democratic Pole party. Interestingly Pardo, a former defense minister, took a harder line against soldiers found guilty of committing extrajudicial executions, calling for “severe punishment,” while Petro said he would favor reduced sentences for those who “collaborate with truth.”
  • Francisco Leal of the National and Andes Universities published a concise but thorough evaluation of the Uribe government’s “Democratic Security” policy on the “Razón Pública” website.
  • Colombia’s Army found a cache of brand-new weapons in southeastern Córdoba department, which it believes to be part of an arms-for-cocaine barter arrangement between the FARC and “new” paramilitary groups in the region.
  • Colombia’s Ideas for Peace Foundation released an interesting report [PDF] on emerging paramilitary groups and “the consolidation of a third generation of paramilitaries.”
  • Colombia’s Constitutional Court is reviewing the legality of scheduling a congressionally approved referendum on whether to change the Constitution to allow President Álvaro Uribe to run for a third straight term. The court’s new chief justice — a one-year rotating position — served as President Uribe’s legal secretary until 2007.
  • If you had invested $100 in Colombia’s stock market index on December 31, 1999, it would be worth $1,529 today.
  • The OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission released an extensive report on the human rights situation in Honduras since the June 28 coup d’état.
    • “The report states that along with the loss of institutional legitimacy caused by the coup d’état, serious human rights violations have occurred. These include deaths; the arbitrary declaration of a state of exception; the repression of public demonstrations through the disproportionate use of force; the criminalization of social protest; the arbitrary detention of thousands of individuals; cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and poor detention conditions; the militarization of the territory; an increase in situations of racial discrimination; violations of women’s rights, arbitrary restrictions on the right to freedom of expression; and serious infringements of political rights.”
  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent a letter to Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa accepting his invitation for eventual dialogues between the United States and UNASUR, the recently formed Union of South American Nations. Correa said that U.S. use of bases in Colombia must be part of any such dialogue’s agenda.
  • Chilean President-Elect Sebastián Piñera promised that his government will “collaborate” with judicial investigations of past human rights abuses, and said he will seek to do away with the Pinochet-era provision that gives the armed forces 10 percent of the state copper company’s revenues.
  • The Mexico-based Consulta Mitofsky took a “poll of polls” of Latin America’s leaders’ approval ratings, coming up with this ranking. The list does not include Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
    • Ricardo Martinelli, Panama: 91%
    • Mauricio Funes, El Salvador: 88%
    • Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil: 83%
    • Michelle Bachelet, Chile: 81%
    • Álvaro Uribe, Colombia: 64%
    • Tabaré Vázquez, Uruguay: 61%
    • Evo Morales, Bolivia: 60%
    • Felipe Calderón, Mexico: 55%
    • Fernando Lugo, Paraguay: 50%
    • Barack Obama, USA: 48%
    • Álvaro Colom, Guatemala: 46%
    • Óscar Arias, Costa Rica: 44%
    • Rafael Correa, Ecuador: 42%
    • Stephen Harper, Canada: 32%
    • Alan García, Peru: 29%
    • Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua: 25%
    • Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina: 19%
Jan 21

The United States’ initial response to the Haiti earthquake has been almost entirely military. The U.S. armed forces control the Port-au-Prince airport. The U.S. Navy is assessing and trying to repair ruined port facilities. U.S. Army cargo aircraft and helicopters are delivering aid, while military search-and-rescue teams try to save survivors.

This is not unusual. The military was the first U.S. agency to respond to the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, and to Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Perhaps the world’s priorities are out of whack, but no country in the world budgets enough to maintain a permanent civilian rapid-reaction agency able to respond to massive natural disasters. During the first few days after a large-scale disaster – when transportation infrastructure has been destroyed and the priority is saving lives – only the military has the manpower, the boats, the helicopters and the equipment to do the job.

Still, the U.S. military’s massive deployment in the days following the Haitian earthquake has raised complaints – some valid, others not so much. As Abigail Poe noted on the “Just the Facts” program blog yesterday, some relief agencies charge that U.S. military air traffic controllers, giving priority to flights transporting soldiers and marines, delayed or rerouted flights bringing medical and relief supplies. “This is about helping Haiti, not about occupying Haiti,” said France’s international cooperation minister. These concerns deserve a response that ensures a proper balance between security concerns and urgent aid delivery needs.

Other criticisms, however, have been more ideological than practical. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said Sunday that the U.S. operation was “occupying Haiti undercover,” while Bolivian President Evo Morales said yesterday he would go to the United Nations to seek condemnation of the U.S. “occupation.”

This charge makes little sense. Why the United States would want to find itself governing Haiti, with its myriad social and economic challenges, is unclear. Certainly, such a mission would be hugely unpopular among U.S. voters.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the debate, some observers see the U.S. deployment as a model for U.S. military action worldwide. Writing on Newsweek’s website, John Barry argues that “whole of government solutions” make little sense in this context, and that the Pentagon should be given control over the United States’ Haiti rebuilding effort.

[T]he only entity on the planet with the capacity to bring help to Haiti on the scale needed is the U.S. military. The United Nations will find it impolitic to admit this; the big international relief groups, proud of their noncombatant status, will shy from acknowledging it. But it is the reality.

This is true at the beginning of the disaster, when lives must be saved and no infrastructure exists. A few months from now, however, as Haiti moves from the emergency phase to the long rebuilding phase, military leadership will no longer be necessary, and the military presence should draw down dramatically.

Engineering, productive, food-security and medical projects should be the province of civilian agencies, both governmental and non-governmental, employing Haitians wherever possible. And the UN mission can handle security, as it did ably until January 12.

The military is the only option in Haiti for now. But the “occupation” phase must be short.

Jan 20

With legislative elections scheduled for March 14 and presidential elections slated for May 30, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe is running out of time to change Colombia’s constitution and run for a third consecutive term in office.

The timetable is tight, but not impossible, Colombia’s Semana magazine explains.

Starting last week, when Inspector-General (Procurador) Alejandro Ordóñez submitted to the Constitutional Court his finding in favor of the referendum, the time period of 30 workdays began for Magistrate Humberto Sierra Porto to submit to the full tribunal his finding about its constitutionality. After these 30 days, which would end on February 22, the Constitutional Court’s nine magistrates could take another 60 to make their definitive decision. If this is positive, and Registrar Carlos Ariel Sánchez takes the full three months that he originally announced that organizing the referendum vote would require, the voting could take place in mid-August, by which time Álvaro Uribe would have no possibility of running for his second re-election.

But these procedures’ speed still breathes life into the possibility that the referendum could be approved and the President might run without having to change the electoral calendar. [Colombia's media is abuzz with speculation that pro-Uribe legislators might take the drastic step of trying to delay Colombia's election day.] These are the counts made in the majority of the political world’s circles: if Magistrate Sierra Porto presents his finding to the court’s full chamber in less than 20 days, as several sources in the high tribunal attest, the court could be issuing its finding by the end of February.

Then the ball would be in the hands of Registrar Sánchez, who over the past few months has been reducing the time he says he needs to arrange the referendum vote logistics. While in the middle of last year he told Semana he needed four months, in August he spoke of three and in November of two. As a result, and recalling his frequent changes of opinion, it would not be odd for Sánchez to accept that the referendum be voted a day before the legislative elections scheduled for March 14, using the same infrastructure for both votes. In theory, this would not require seeking a new list of guarantors, setting up new ballots, or organizing new voting precincts. In this case, the elections could be organized in less than two months.

However Sánchez, the registrar, said Monday that he would still need two months to organize the referendum vote. He cited “logistical and legal terms that would mean at least two months,” as well as contracting procedures. According to Semana magazine’s shortest timeline, that would place the referendum in mid-April, a mere month and a half before the presidential election in which Uribe might or might not be a candidate.

Jan 15

  • A small sampling of some of the Haiti coverage we’ve found worth linking to is here. There is much we’ve missed. The New York Times Haiti Twitter list is worth a follow as well.
  • Twenty-nine Colombian soldiers and officers standing trial for the 2008 Soacha “false positives” murders have been freed from preventive detention in the past week. Meanwhile the mother of one of the victims tells El Espectador’s Cecilia Orozco about the threats, and the lack of government support, that she and other mothers are receiving.
  • “My admiration is personal and institutional for the Honduran people, who stoically withstood international pressures, foreign meddling and every kind of assault against their sovereignty in order to keep an anachronistic model from implanting itself in their country.” – Colombia’s vice president, Francisco Santos
  • Colombian President Álvaro Uribe received two delegations of U.S. visitors to his ranch in Córdoba department: a congressional delegation led by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, and James Steinberg, the deputy secretary of state and number-two official in the State Department.
  • “I have received information about an extremely worrying situation of violence and other crimes against indigenous peoples.” – James Anaya, UN special rapporteur on indigenous peoples, who issued a new report this week.
  • The Associated Press published a long, gripping story about a bend in the Cauca river where the bodies of the murdered tend to wash up, and about a woman who for years has tried to retrieve them.
  • The La Silla Vacía website presents an excellent list of twelve changes Colombia has gone through during the 16 months that the country’s political class has been distracted by the debate over whether President Uribe can run for reelection.
  • Chileans vote in a presidential runoff election on Sunday. Polls give a razor-thin advantage to conservative businessman Sebastián Piñera over center-left former President Eduardo Frei.
  • Chile is eliminating a constitutional provision, inherited from the Pinochet regime, that gave the armed forces a fixed percentage of copper profits to use for weapons purchases. Bolivia, on the other hand, is considering adding such a provision.
  • Last May, days before he was murdered, Guatemalan lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg recorded a video stating that if he were to be killed, it would be the fault of Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom. This week, UN investigators announced a bizarre finding: Rosenberg in fact planned his own assassination. (See this PDF presentation.)
  • Reuters published a lengthy piece about the aerial narcotrafficking route between South America and Africa, alleging that it is being plied by a rogue air fleet with links to Al Qaeda.
  • The U.S. NGO Freedom House released its annual “Freedom in the World” report, contending that several countries in Latin America – Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic – were less free in 2009 than they were in 2008.
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales, on his third-ever visit to a movie theater, saw Avatar and declared it to be “a profound example of resistance against capitalism and the struggle to defend nature.”
Jan 15

Haiti(Please pardon this first-person post, which probably reveals my ignorance of Haiti more than anything else.)

I just found some old film-camera photos from my first and only trip to Port-au-Prince. Here are scans of 5 of them; click through to see them larger.

These are from July 1995. I was 24 years old, and working in the foundation that Oscar Arias, Costa Rica’s former (and current) president, had founded with his 1987 Nobel Peace Prize money. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the elected president deposed by a 1991 coup, had been restored to power a year before. Oscar Arias was trying to convince Aristide to follow Costa Rica’s example and abolish the army that had kicked him out, and Aristide didn’t require a lot of convincing.

For some reason, though I didn’t (and still don’t) speak French or Creole, I got to visit Haiti for a few days, accompanying the foundation’s project director in Port-au-Prince.

Though by that time I’d spent a year in Central America, this was no preparation for Haiti. Countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua (the latter two the #3 and #2 poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti) were destitute and just emerging from civil war. But Haiti was something else entirely.

The country had just been through 30 years of the bizarre dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude, then 9 years of coups, with Aristide’s brief tenure mixed in. You could tell from looking at Port-au-Prince that there had been a time – the 1950s or 1960s, perhaps? – when the city had a downtown, with buildings and storefronts. But no construction appeared to have gone on since then. Lots of crumbling concrete, missing windows, and abandoned shells. Nearly all the population living in shantytowns. In the biggest, Cité Soleil, I saw mazes of shacks and children playing near huge piles of garbage where pigs and rats feasted.

Aristide had been restored, and a UN peacekeeping mission was there. I talked to some blue-helmeted U.S. troops, standing around by their armored personnel carrier in “downtown” Port-au-Prince. They had arrived recently and didn’t hide their confusion about exactly what they were supposed to be doing.

We had a couple of meetings each day, but with poor telecommunications and incredible traffic on the few paved roads – I can’t imagine how you can deliver relief supplies by road now – all you could do was drop in on two or three people and call it a day.

I saw people getting water from open drainage sewers, as depicted in the bottom of these five pictures. In this hot, crowded seaside city, this was the only source of fresh (that is, non-salty) water for much of the population. I saw people bathing in these sewers, naked in broad daylight in crowded neighborhoods.

I saw fresh water flowing in the fountains and swimming pools of the hotels in Petiónville, the suburb that sits atop a steep hill overlooking Port-au-Prince. This is where the country’s tiny economic elite lives, and the contrast is horribly stark.

I saw people everywhere, lining the streets, even in the middle of the streets. Look in windows and see more people looking out. It’s painful to imagine the buildings coming down around all of these people on Tuesday afternoon.

Since 1995, Haiti has been on and off – mostly off – the U.S. radar screen. There was a period of relative peace between 1994 and 2004, during which the Republican-majority U.S. Congress, which disdained Aristide and the U.S.-UN intervention to restore him, blocked most of the Clinton administration’s attempts to fund the country’s recovery.

During the early 2000s Aristide, serving his first uninterrupted term, grew more erratic and authoritarian, and he was knocked out of power by unrest. The Bush administration seemed happy with the outcome. Since then, there has been a big UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti (whose headquarters disintegrated on Tuesday), with almost no U.S. troops. The country has been slammed by natural disasters, including floods in 2004 and 2008 that destroyed the city of Gonaïves.

But still, there was some optimism. President Rene Preval seemed to be running one of the least corrupt governments (relatively) in memory. The UN mission had broken gangs’ domination of Cité Soleil. The economy was growing. Cruise ships were returning for port visits. Chain hotels were considering building franchises.

And now this.

I don’t have anything insightful to say about the earthquake itself, other than that it’s shocking to have such a holocaust occur only a few hundred miles from Miami. As with the Indian Ocean tsunami a few years ago, it’s all about logistics right now: rescuing people who can be rescued and getting emergency supplies to people who need it. You need all the helicopters you can get, and only the military can do that.

After that, what happens to the people who have survived, and who are now facing a long period of conditions even worse than what I saw in 1995? Nobody really knows.

This could be a turning point for Haiti, a moment when a badly divided, dysfunctional polity forges a social contract. Or, perhaps more likely, Haiti will somehow muddle through, with a generation enduring greater suffering as a result of Tuesday. Either way, the humanitarian emergency alone will require the United States and the “international community” to accompany Haiti far more closely, and with greater generosity, than they have. Probably for many years.

Jan 11

Colombia’s Defense Ministry has ordered the confinement of seventeen officers and soldiers facing trial for the 2008 murders of young men whose bodies were later presented as those of armed-group members killed in combat. As discussed in this blog’s last post, the seventeen had been set free Friday after a court ruled that, due significantly to defense lawyers’ delaying tactics, the time to prosecute them had run out.

The 17 are now confined to the base of the Colombian Army’s 13th Artillery Battalion, situated near the La Picota prison in southern Bogotá, where they will apparently be given desk jobs while their court case slowly proceeds.

  • Statement of Colombia’s Defense Ministry: “At the instruction of the Minister of Defense and the Commander-General of the Armed Forces, the personnel must remain within the military unit, restricted to internal tasks, and they will not be assigned to any type of tactical or operational mission.”
  • Statement of Colombia’s Presidency: “It is difficult to understand why now that terrorists’ interference to block justice has been overcome, impunity can still result from decisions rooted in the expiration of time periods.”
  • El Tiempo: “The government’s main concern is that this judicial decision could affect the Colombian state internationally, in the sense that this could be seen as a synonym for impunity in the country, which also generates a lack of credibility.”
Jan 09
Image source: El Tiempo.

It is with revulsion that we learn of a Colombian court’s decision yesterday to release 17 Colombian Army personnel for the 2008 Soacha murder case.

The officers and soldiers were awaiting trial for conspiring to kidnap and kill unemployed young men in a slum on Bogotá’s outskirts, only to present their bodies hundreds of miles away as those of armed-group members killed in combat. By raising their “body count” through this unconscionable scheme, the soldiers qualified for a schedule of rewards, as established by Defense Ministry orders. This so-called “False Positives” scandal now involves hundreds of cases since 2002 under official investigation all over Colombia, with over 1,000 potential victims.

Because of its high-profile nature — it forced the resignation of Army chief Gen. Mario Montoya — the Soacha case is a key test of whether Colombia would be able to investigate and punish these crimes.

Colombia is failing that test. Yesterday, 17 alleged perpetrators were released because a judge decided that prosecutors’ time had run out. This issue had come up before, in October. At the time, a judge avoided letting the soldiers go free, giving prosecutors a 90-day extension. He agreed that most of the delay was the fault of the soldiers’ defense lawyers, who were clearly trying to “run out the clock” by throwing up a series of procedural roadblocks, including demands that the murders be tried in Colombia’s military justice system instead of the civilian courts.

It appears that the delaying tactics have worked. The message this sends about impunity for human rights abuse — even in the most egregious cases, like Soacha — could hardly be more poisonous. It is also a huge slap in the face to the Soacha victims’ grieving relatives, who had already been receiving threats.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Office in Colombia had uncharacteristically strong words about yesterday’s events.

“I am extremely worried about the impact and the repercussions that this decision could have over the more than 1,200 cases of extrajudicial executions that the Prosecutor-General’s Human Rights Unit is investigating, as well as on the mothers of the victims and the witnesses,” said Christian Salazar Volkmann, representative in Colombia of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Office continues to view as extremely serious the pattern under which many of these acts were committed.

Even Colombia’s Ministry of Defense, headed by a minister who has called human rights prosecutions were the work of “enemies of the fatherland,”  appeared chagrined, calling on the justice system to continue its investigations and prosecutions of the Soacha cases, even with so many of the perpetrators now once again enjoying their freedom.

For the U.S. government, the implication of yesterday’s move is clear: as long as impunity continues to reign in these “false positives” cases, it is impossible to certify that Colombia’s human rights performance is improving.

Jan 09

A long vacation with the family and a week trying to catch up on more urgent deadlines. Normal posting should resume by Monday. Sorry for the absence.