Putumayo, 5 years into Plan Colombia More Colombia aid this fall?
Aug 082005

I apologize for the lack of postings during the past seven days, due to a long-planned week of vacation, with minimal Internet access.

I had thought that the first week of August – usually a slower-paced time in Washington, with Congress away and academia shut down – would be a good time to be absent. Instead, it turned out to be a very eventful week. At least six events passed me by:

1. Álvaro Uribe met President Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. And apparently nothing happened. The visit received surprisingly little attention. Of the top 25 most-circulated newspapers in the country, only the Miami Herald, Houston Chronicle, and LA Times reported on it, while the Washington Post gave it a few paragraphs in a larger story. Other papers ran wire-service accounts or nothing at all.

Why so little ink? Apparently, because there was little to report about. As he did on a brief visit to Cartagena last November, President Bush offered Uribe – one of his administration’s only firm allies in the hemisphere – strong words of support and declarations of a commitment to “stay the course.” But no new initiatives were announced, and neither president revealed significant details about their planned future cooperation.

So the media largely ignored the visit. Even many questions at the two presidents’ press conference had nothing to do with Colombia. (President Bush did, however, get a chance to refer to his Secretary of State as “Condoleezza Arroz.”)

If anything, the meeting makes it appear likely that next year, the Bush administration will once again request aid to Colombia totaling over $700 million for 2007. However, an unnamed State Department official told Reuters that a reduction may in fact be in the offing: “We would like them [the Colombians] to share more of the burden.”

The meeting left unclear how committed the Bush administration is to funding the demobilization of paramilitary groups. Officials like Ambassador William Wood and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns have defended the loophole-ridden law that Colombia passed to govern the paramilitary process. President Bush, however, was non-committal when a questioner gave him an opportunity to express support.

Likewise, it remains unclear whether the Bush administration will support President Uribe’s request for $150 million in additional spray planes, helicopters and other equipment, a request that several House Republicans had forwarded to appropriators in May, only to be turned down for lack of room in the foreign-aid budget. This request is clearly not dead, as syndicated columnist and live-TV-profanity-spewer Robert Novak – who gets input from House Republican staff for his periodic pieces about Colombia – today blames the State Department for blocking the additional funding.

2. The State Department issued its first human rights certification in eleven months. As we’d warned two weeks earlier, the State Department on August 1 fulfilled a legal requirement by certifying to Congress that Colombia’s human rights performance has improved. The decision freed up 12.5 percent of military aid for 2004, and another 12.5 percent for 2005, that had been frozen: a total of $70 or $80 million.

The State Department – which for months was simply unable to document any significant advances against impunity for abusers in the Colombian military – deserved praise for holding out as long as it did. But it got little in the way of human-rights improvements. In the end, arrests were made or charges brought against one second lieutenant, one corporal and eight privates for their involvement in two 2004 killings of civilians. No discernible progress has been made in dozens of other cases that remain in impunity, including nearly all of those mentioned in a July 1 letter to Secretary of State Rice from 22 senators [PDF format].

Without progress on human rights, the State Department should not have certified. To do so sends a poor message. It says that the United States cares about human rights in Colombia, to the point where it will freeze aid for months – but if Colombia’s military stands firm and refuses to punish abusers in its ranks, the United States will eventually give in and keep the military aid flowing. The incentive for Colombia’s military is clear: don’t give any ground, for there will be no sanction for inaction.

3. Former President Andrés Pastrana was nominated to be Colombia’s next ambassador to the United States. In July, Colombia’s longtime ambassador, Luis Alberto Moreno, was named to the presidency of the Inter-American Development Bank. Moreno – a tireless lobbyist who required his staff to meet as regularly as possible with congressional staff – is leaving a big vacuum, which President Uribe has chosen to fill with Pastrana, the man who gave Moreno the ambassadorship back in 1998. Pastrana, who has been a harsh and outspoken critic of many of Uribe’s policies, is an odd choice; Uribe, in true Machiavellian fashion, is clearly trying to “keep his enemies close” – but out of the country – as the re-election campaign approaches.

Congressional Republicans – who associate Pastrana with the “soft on terror” approach of having attempted negotiations with the FARC – have made their displeasure known. Republican staffers contacted Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper to make clear that “Uribe has the right to name whoever he wants, but he should not forget that U.S. support is not guaranteed and he will have to work for it.” Their protests run along the lines of a letter to the editor of the Miami Herald from a Colombian-American Miami state legislator, who wrote that “Pastrana, with his silver-spoon political pedigree, does not have the strength of character to make a difference.”

Never mind that Pastrana brought about Plan Colombia and oversaw an even bigger military buildup than what Uribe has managed. Right-wing Colombians and Americans simply don’t forgive him for trying to negotiate peace with guerrillas.

In fact, the real reasons why proponents of current policies should be worried are Pastrana’s lack of enthusiasm for many of Uribe’s strategies, and his general lack of dynamism. Pastrana has loudly criticized the paramilitary demobilization process, a process he will now find himself trying to defend, and to sell to skeptical congressional funders. The former president, meanwhile, is not known to be an indefatigable worker. While it would be unfair to call him lazy, his style is a contrast to President Uribe – who appears to work 7 days per week, 20 hours per day – and Ambassador Moreno.

4. The Washington Post echoed the Colombian government’s line in an editorial about the paramilitary demobilization process. The August 1 piece, calling on the U.S. government “to do what it can to give this crucial initiative by a democratic ally every chance to succeed,” contrasts sharply with a July 4 New York Times editorial condemning the process as a “capitulation” to the AUC.

The editorial board of the Post, a key voice of the Washington establishment, has a record of hawkishness and insensate pragmatism that includes support for both Plan Colombia and the Iraq war. Its members met with Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos during his mid-July visit to Washington, and the text of their editorial does not stray from the arguments Santos presented. (Compare the Post editorial, for instance, with the speech the vice-president delivered that week at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars [Word (.doc) format].)

5. Human Rights Watch produced an excellent report on the failings of the paramilitary demobilization process. Clearly the Post didn’t consider the arguments laid out in “Smoke and Mirrors: Colombia’s demobilization of paramilitary groups,” a devastating 60-page report released on August 1.

The document, HRW’s first major investigative report on Colombia in nearly two years, brilliantly presents the many failings of the Justice and Peace law, and the growing power of paramilitarism in Colombian politics and society. While much of that ground has been trod by other groups, “Smoke and Mirrors” adds a detailed, step-by-step look at how the demobilization process is playing out, clearly showing the many opportunities it affords paramilitaries to enjoy impunity for atrocities, to avoid paying reparations, and to avoid seeing their groups dismantled. The report, which draws from interviews with demobilized paramilitaries, is highly recommended.

6. Roger Noriega resigned his position as assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Noriega, the senior State Department official for Latin America, had held his post since July of 2003. A former staffer for retired Sen. Jesse Helms known for his archconservative views, Noriega was particularly known for his hard line on Cuba – which came to be accompanied by antipathy to Venezuela. He devoted relatively little attention to Colombia, visiting the country and speaking publicly about it only rarely.

Noriega’s resignation was not a major shock; he had a difficult tenure. The low point was probably the State Department’s repeated inability to win regional support for the United States’ favored candidates to the OAS secretary-generalship. Marcela Sánchez’s Washington Post column on Friday did not mince words:

As a Senate staffer, Noriega often complained about the lack of a comprehensive strategy toward the region. Unfortunately his words and actions during his two years as assistant secretary of state revealed a strategy whose only logic was its anti-Castro obsession. … His frequent miscalculations had exhausted the patience of officials in Washington, many of whom felt, as a Senate Republican aide said this week, that the role of the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America cannot be filled with someone who “only satisfies domestic political concerns.”

Thomas Shannon, a career diplomat who worked with Condoleezza Rice at the National Security Council, is Noriega’s likely successor. While his appointment won’t bring a 180-degree turn in the Bush administration’s approach to Latin America, it is positive that U.S. relations with the region will no longer be managed by individuals with political axes to grind, like Noriega and his immediate predecessor, Otto Reich.

One Response to “Catching up after an eventful week”

  1. jcg Says:

    Interesting way to sum things up.

    The certification was to be expected, though I suppose that the appointement of a new Attorney General might have perhaps been used as an additional reason to give the Colombian government yet another chance to actually move forward in some of the more relevant cases, instead of merely making token moves. I guess it’s possible that perhaps some more progress will be made, but probably less than what would justify certification either way.

    And btw, the new Attorney General, Mario Iguarán, seems to be paying attention to at least some of HRW’s concerns (those that fall within his jurisdiction, I believe), according to a news piece published today in EL TIEMPO.

    The HRW report is definitely a good read, though I am intrigued about why would former paramilitaries be so open to talk to NGOs, especially those so critical of the process that’s actually benefitting them, one way or another.

    As for Pastrana, I guess he’ll need to surround himself with a competent staff (perhaps he’ll simply continue with most of Moreno’s crew, unless there are any clear personal or political divisions among them).

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