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Dec 192005

No, that’s not a typo. Friday saw a rare occasion in which the U.S. government publicly differed from President Uribe, and did the right thing.

In a speech before the Prosecutor General’s Course on Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law, U.S. Ambassador William Wood brought up some concerns that have been important causes for U.S. and Colombian human rights groups.

Despite advances, the investigation and prosecution of past violations are still very show and complicated, while new violations continue to occur. For example, the kidnapping and murder of Afro-Colombian leader Orlando Valencia more than a month ago still has not been clarified.

Ambassador Wood also expressed important concern over the paramilitaries’ evident influence over next year’s elections (congressional in March, presidential in May) in much of the country.

Colombia still suffers from political violence and intimidation. This is not new, but it is serious. I recall the concern in the local and regional elections of 2003 at the number of unopposed candidates whose legitimate opponents had been corrupted, frightened away or, in some cases, murdered. There is wide concern that similar corrupt electoral practices may occur in the elections of 2006, notably by paramilitaries.

Last summer in the debate on the Justice and Peace Law, the embassy asked if an attempt to pervert the democratic process through corruption or intimidation by the paramilitaries would be deemed a fundamental violation and would remove all benefits. The negotiators on the law assured us that it would: we take them at their word. But we also want to make clear that we will urge the elimination of all benefits to any beneficiary under the Justice and Peace law who is involved directly or indirectly in corruption or intimidation in the elections.

Paramilitary influence over local politics and government is a big and increasing problem, despite the ongoing demobilizations that have dominated Colombia’s headlines. In a post last month, we discussed a congressman from the southern department of Guaviare who has been forced to withdraw his candidacy by paramilitary threats. Elsewhere in Colombia, particularly across the country’s northern tier, paramilitary dominance of politics is even stronger, and few candidates will be able to run for mayor, governor or congress without paramilitary approval.

One would expect the Uribe government, which is working so closely with the United States, to respond to the ambassador’s comments by recognizing that paramilitary power is a big potential problem, and by publicly committing to doing more to stop it (even if it has no real will to do so). That did not happen.

Instead, the Colombian government immediately released a curt three-sentence statement reminding Ambassador Wood that “the Colombian government does not accept foreign governments’ interference, even from the United States,” and that “Plan Colombia [that is, U.S. aid] cannot be used by the United States as an element of pressure over our country.” 

Wrong answer! The problem of paramilitary power over the elections is very real, and Bogotá’s statement does nothing to reassure us that the Colombian government intends to do much to stop it. (Yes, Friday’s response to the ambassador includes a flat statement that armed groups’ involvement in politics is illegal, violating the “Justice and Peace” law that governs the paramilitary demobilizations. Yes, we know it’s illegal. But lots of illegal things happen in Colombia, with impunity, all the time.)

The real message this statement sends is: the Colombian government rarely disagrees publicly with Washington, but is willing to go to the mat where paramilitary influence is concerned. That is a terrible message to send – if anything, international pressure like Ambassador Wood’s statement should be seen as giving the government welcome leverage in the difficult task of reducing paramilitary power. The message is especially grim at the end of a week during which paramilitary leader Iván Roberto Duque called for the creation of two unelected seats in Colombia’s Congress for “former” paramilitaries.

Since this posting began with praise for Ambassador Wood and criticism of the Uribe government, let’s end on another unusual note: praise for Álvaro Uribe the candidate.

As Colombia’s election season has entered full swing, Uribe has managed to convince the ELN to begin peace talks in Cuba, and is at least offering to pull the military out of small areas in order to talk with the FARC about a hostage-for-prisoner exchange. (Yes, the FARC is unlikely to settle for less than a demilitarization of two entire municipalities, so those offers may go nowhere – though they at least give the appearance of government action and flexibility.)

Critics charge that these peace gestures are a cynical election-year ploy to silence critics who charge that Uribe is only interested in negotiating with the paramilitaries. Indeed, the recent peace push may owe much to electoral politics.

But even if it does, it’s still remarkable. Uribe was elected in 2002 as the pro-war candidate who rose to national prominence as one of the harshest critics of then-President Andrés Pastrana’s talks with the FARC. By agreeing to enter into talks with the ELN without a cease-fire in place, and by offering demilitarized zones (however small) to the FARC, the 2006 Uribe is making moves that would have been repugnant to the 2002 Uribe.

With his approval ratings over 70 percent, he could have chosen to run with a Karl Rove strategy of rallying his hard-line base, avoiding any moves to the center, and opting for confrontation over consensus. Instead, Uribe seems to be moving in an Ariel Sharon direction – making peace concessions that risk alienating his traditional hard-right constituency.

Even if it’s just an election-year stunt, Uribe’s gestures toward the guerrillas are significant because of that they signal about Colombia’s national mood. Whereas talk of negotiations would have been a recipe for electoral defeat in 2002, even Uribe feels a need to establish his bona fides as a peacemaker in 2006. And that alone is a good sign.

2 Responses to “Ambassador Wood is right”

  1. Randy Paul Says:

    The message is especially grim at the end of a week during which paramilitary leader Iván Roberto Duque called for the creation of two unelected seats in Colombia’s Congress for “former” paramilitaries.

    That’s downright Pinochevian (if such an adjective exists).

    Wood was also right to mention how outrageous it was for Salvatore Mancuso to address Congress last year. I think that the advantage here goes to former ambassador Myles Frechette:

    Myles Frechette, a former American ambassador to Colombia, said in a telephone interview from Washington, “The U.S. government has been so intent on not offending and being supportive of President Uribe that they have allowed huge elephants into the room, and one of those elephants is the increasing criminal influence in the Congress.”

  2. Adam Isacson Says:

    What a great quote that was. Myles Frechette has been a most articulate critic of the “Justice and Peace” law and the paramilitaries’ increasing power. Look at this transcript of an exchange between him and Amb. Wood at an event in Washington last June (scroll most of the way down).

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