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Feb 092007

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s speeches frequently include a passage in which he asserts that he has done more than his predecessors to create space for the often-threatened political opposition. Google tells us that the terms “garantías efectivas” (effective security guarantees) and “oposición” show up together in 156 different pages on the Colombian presidency’s website. Here’s an example from last October:

“The FARC said that they would not negotiate because the opposition’s spokespeople are murdered in Colombia. But in the government of Democratic Security [that is, Uribe's administration] the opposition has had unprecedented effective security guarantees. They have always had rhetorical and formal guarantees in Colombia, but in recent decades these were not as effective as the guarantees that they have had under this government, as was demonstrated by the effective freedoms that protected the opposition during the last election campaign.”

“Effective guarantees” appear only to go so far, though. When leaders of the opposition bloc in Colombia’s congress proposed to investigate why paramilitary groups expanded so quickly when Uribe was governor of Antioquia department in the mid-1990s, the president’s rhetoric about the opposition changed. Uribe had this to say on Saturday about former M-19 guerrillas who disarmed sixteen years ago and who are now key opposition politicians proposing to investigate his past.

“[The talks with paramilitary groups] are different from the past, when those who burned down the Palace of Justice, with money from narcotraffickers, simply took off their camouflage uniforms, put on a business suit and came to Congress to teach the country about morality. Some have done it very well. Others, unfortunately, simply went from being terrorists in camouflage to being terrorists in business suits.”

Senator Gustavo Petro of the opposition Alternative Democratic Pole party, a former M-19 guerrilla, wants the Congress to hold a hearing to investigate then-Governor Uribe’s actions – or inaction – during the paramilitary expansion in Antioquia ten years ago. He responded quickly to President Uribe’s outburst: “I think there are terrorists wearing ties and civilian clothes, but they are being imprisoned right now – and almost all of them are friends of the President.”

As investigations into paramilitary infiltration of Colombia’s government progress, things may become more dangerous, yet again, for Colombia’s opposition. President Uribe’s words only increase the danger and undermine the “effective guarantees” to which he so often refers.

There is nothing terroristic about calling for an investigation into the president’s past. If there is nothing behind Senator Petro’s allegations, then President Uribe has nothing to fear and Senator Petro’s credibility will suffer. To call the senator a terrorist, though, is out of line, deserves strong condemnation – and in the end, it only increases the public’s curiosity about what Petro proposes to investigate.

One Response to “Terrorists in business suits”

  1. jcg Says:

    Uribe definitely is acting out of line and is only hurting his own image, in addition to indirectly increasing potential dangers to the opposition. Uribe far too often doesn’t know how to handle critics, regardless of whether they are right or wrong. Still, I doubt that his irresponsible words alone are going to make murderers pop out of thin air, although his words might well further motivate already existing criminals, which is why I reject his statements too.

    There is nothing terrorist about what Mr. Petro argued, indeed, and his proposed debate is both interesting and necessary, even if some people try to use his words to simplify things far too much (not Petro, most of the time he is quite reasonable, but others, including some who claim to be his followers or admirers).

    But it must be said that part of the aggressiveness of Uribe’s current outburst may be due to the references to his brother. Mr. Petro had already mentioned the “Paramilitarism in Antioquia” debate earlier, and comments about Uribe himself have been repeated dozens of times not always generating such a reaction from the President, but this emphasis on Uribe’s brother is a bit new (especially considering the fanfare with which EL TIEMPO quoted Petro on the subject).

    I have no idea if all of Mr. Petro’s claims are accurate, but regardless of it, far too often “family matters” become extremely sensitive subjects in Colombian politics and in personal struggles.

    That said, it never justifies calling someone else a terrorist (or a paramilitary or a fascist and so forth) in public as it is, again, not only stupid but also potentially dangerous.

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