Here are three comments about Colombia that high officials, both current and former, have made during the past three weeks. There is almost no need to comment on them, other than to marvel at the extreme isolation from reality that these remarks reveal.
These statements appear to indicate that high-level U.S. policymakers from both parties (1) only get their information from Colombian and U.S. government officials, who depend on them for their budgets and have a strong incentive to defend the strategies they designed; and (2) are either unaware of, or broadly dismissive of, the mountains of contrary information produced by dozens of U.S. and Colombian scholars, reporters, activists and political figures. The result is that top leaders believe things that are patently untrue, these beliefs spread across the upper strata of government, media and elite opinion â€“ and very bad policy gets made.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, interview with NBC Editorial Board, September 15, 2005: â€œ[I]t took the Iraqis â€“ theyâ€™re making some progress on the reconstruction front. Theyâ€™re making quite a lot of progress in the building of their security forces. And theyâ€™re making real progress on the political front. And thatâ€™s how I would assess it. â€¦ There are other governments that have survived that and come out on top, among them the Colombian Government, as an example, which at one point, Colombia had 30 percent of its territory in FARC hands. One of the first things Uribe did was he said, Iâ€™m going to reestablish control over those areas that I donâ€™t have control. And you remember, many of you who are foreign affairs reporters, you will remember that, what, Andrea, ten years ago, bombs went off in BogotÃ¡ every week.â€
If Secretary Rice really believes that Colombia could be a model for U.S. operations in Iraq, the future in Baghdad is even bleaker than we thought.
The Colombia comparison is false. At least 30 percent of Colombian territory â€“ most of it rural and sparsely populated, as before â€“ is still in FARC hands. Remote municipalities several hundred square miles in size have not seen â€œgovernment control reestablishedâ€ just because the Colombian government has sent a few dozen police to their largest towns.
Worse, Colombiaâ€™s guerrillas remain all too active. According to a recent report [PDF format] by Colombiaâ€™s Security and Democracy Foundation â€“ not a left-wing outfit â€“ guerrilla attacks against military and police targets were 69 percent more frequent during the first three years of the Uribe government than during those of his predecessor, AndrÃ©s Pastrana. And the frequency and scale of FARC attacks has risen dramatically since about late February or early March of this year.
Incidentally, the FARC have never had the capacity to set off bombs in BogotÃ¡ every week, as Ms. Rice claims occurred â€œten years ago.â€ The Secretary was probably thinking about the MedellÃn drug cartel, which carried out an urban bombing campaign fifteen years ago to pressure against its leadersâ€™ extradition. If anything, as the 2002 inauguration bombings, the February 2003 El Nogal bombing and other incidents have shown, the guerrillas appear to be bombing cities slightly more often than before.
Drug Czar John Walters, speech before the Hudson Institute, August 31, 2005: â€œIn the course of wringing out that trouble, economic growth, better rights environment than I believe any nation on Earth, frankly, has had in terms of improvement in the last two years, have occurred. Yet the example of Colombia, as I say, is not talked about with, I think, the focus and attention it deserves.â€
The State Departmentâ€™s â€œWashington Fileâ€ helpfully translates this statement as meaning â€œin the area of human rights, Colombia has witnessed more improvement over the last two years than â€˜any other nation on earth.â€™â€
This is inaccurate; in fact, the last two years have not been good ones for human rights in Colombia. The State Departmentâ€™s own human-rights certification documents show that there has been no increased effort to suspend, investigate or prosecute military personnel for human-rights crimes, even though hundreds of cases remain unresolved (several dozen are documented in this recent report [PDF format] from several Colombian human-rights groups). Impunity remains nearly total for higher-ranking officers who may have ordered human-rights abuses or collaborated with paramilitaries. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rightsâ€™ last report cited â€œ[A]n increase in reports of extrajudicial executions attributed to members of the security forces and other public officials.â€ And a disturbing policy of mass, and often arbitrary, arrests has darkened the human-rights picture still further.
Former President Bill Clinton, interview with ABC News This Week, September 18, 2005: â€œWhen 13,000 armed guerrillas and paramilitaries in Colombia give up their weapons and rejoin civil society, and President Uribe, who’s been so tough on them, offers them a chance to reconcile, why are they doing that? Because they know they’re not going to win anymore, and they want to be part of a political process.â€
It is encouraging that guerrilla desertion rates are up, though nearly all of those turning themselves in are very young, recent recruits â€“ not leaders looking to participate in â€œa political process.â€ At the negotiating table, though, the Uribe government has made almost no progress toward peace with Colombian guerrillas. We can only hope that increased efforts with the ELN this month hold some promise.
President Clinton may have been thinking of the Uribe governmentâ€™s talks with paramilitary groups, which have involved massive demobilizations. However, the paramilitaries are not turning in their weapons because theyâ€™ve realized â€œtheyâ€™re not going to winâ€ â€“ after all, they claim to be pro-government. And itâ€™s doubtful that the AUC chose to negotiate because the government was â€œtough on themâ€: in December 2002, when the paramilitary leadership declared a â€œcease-fireâ€ and began the negotiation process, government attacks against the AUC were infrequent, perhaps a few dozen per year.
Before he once again sings the praises of the paramilitary process, we suggest that President Clinton â€“ who was known as an avid reader â€“ glance at one of the following reports.
- â€œSmoke and Mirrors: Colombiaâ€™s demobilization of paramilitary groups,â€ by Human Rights Watch, August 2005.
- â€œThe Paramilitaries in MedellÃn: Demobilization or Legalization?â€ by Amnesty International, September 1, 2005.
- â€œPeace â€“ Or Paramilitarization?â€ by the Center for International Policy, July 2005.
- â€œDemobilising the Paramilitaries in Colombia: An Achievable Goal?â€ by the International Crisis Group, August 5, 2004