“I saw my grave being dug” An odd place for an “after-party”
Apr 212007

Former Vice-President Al Gore’s office confirmed yesterday that Gore dropped out of a Miami environmental conference simply because Colombian President Álvaro Uribe would be there. This is the strongest message Colombia has yet received about how seriously the rest of the world is viewing revelations of government officials’ ties to drug-dealing, mass-murdering paramilitaries.

It is important that Gore sent this message. But now that he has done so, the former vice-president must follow through in order to avoid doing inadvertent damage.

In a brief statement yesterday, Gore’s office explained that “until this very serious chapter in Colombian history is brought to a close, Mr. Gore did not feel it was appropriate to appear at the event.”

The problem with this wording is the expressed desire that this serious chapter be “brought to a close.” That desire is already shared by those implicated – or potentially implicated – in the “para-politics” scandal. President Uribe and his supporters would no doubt prefer to see the whole thing put quickly behind them, and to return as quickly as possible to business as usual.

So far, President Uribe has done little to stop the paramilitary scandal from unfolding. But the danger that he might seek to end it – leveraging his popularity and enormous political strength behind some effort to “move on” – increases every day that the allegations creep closer to him.

Colombia needs to address this “chapter in its history” correctly. For the first time in perhaps a generation, it has a chance to undergo the historic housecleaning it so desperately needs in order to rid itself of decades of narco-corruption, impunity for mass murderers, and rule of brute force instead of law.

If this happens, though, the process will not be “brought to a close” anytime soon. What has happened so far would be only the first steps in a march that could take several years.

Colombia has no shortage of brave reformers who are trying to make this housecleaning happen. Senator Gustavo Petro, whose congressional hearing on Tuesday brought new allegations to light, is only one among many. Much of the hard work is being done by Colombia’s judicial system – judges, investigators and prosecutors in the Supreme Court and parts of the attorney-general’s office – as well as Colombia’s inspector-general and ombudsman’s office, plus dozens of brave journalists and human-rights activists, and hundreds, perhaps thousands of victims waiting to testify about what happened to them.

These reformers are in no hurry to get this process over with – they know it will take a while to rid Colombia of the power of entrenched mafias and warlords. But they are very weak politically. They know that the powerful establishment they are investigating is still very capable of stuffing this genie back in the bottle anytime they wish. All this establishment needs is a reason to sweep the whole thing under the rug without any meaningful reform.

We can already glimpse what that pretext might be. Some argue that the continuing revelations threaten the country’s “governability” because the Congress has been semi-paralyzed. Now, some are arguing that the “para-politics” process must be brought to a premature close because of the damage it is doing to Colombia’s international relations.

That is why Al Gore’s snub, though important, could be dangerous. If the former vice-president leaves things as they are today, he will have given a powerful weapon to those in Colombia who wish to see the whole scandal simply go away. He will have given President Uribe a powerful cudgel with which to beat the opposition, a reason to say publicly – as he did this week – “Look at the damage you’re doing to us in Washington and Europe with your irresponsible allegations.”

What should the former vice-president do? In order to follow through properly, Gore should accept President Uribe’s invitation to visit Colombia. Another snub will only give Uribe more ammunition for his domestic political battles.

When appearing publicly with Uribe in Bogotá, though, Gore should make a clear and explicit show of support for the many brave Colombians who are investigating and prosecuting paramilitary power, and defending the rights of its victims. Gore should then appear publicly with these investigators, prosecutors, legislators, journalists, activists, victims and other reformers, and emphasize the vital importance of their work.

Colombia is taking its first tentative steps toward breaking entrenched links between crime and political power. At this point, even a brief visit from Al Gore – one that upholds the work of those fighting to reveal the truth – can have a huge impact on the outcome of the process.

4 Responses to “The right way to snub President Uribe”

  1. Camilo Wilson Says:

    This is an excellent analysis. Early closure to a process still in its infancy, thus allowing those well-entrenched forces of Colombia’s Establishment to retreat into their dark netherworld, is a real danger.

    I salute Al Gore. If he is serious about his recent “snub” of Uribe, and I hope he is, then he should indeed go to Colombia and do as Mr. Isacson suggests. But I would also hope that the US State Department, and its personnel in the Bogota embassy, would make it very clear to Uribe that they expect his government to allow Gore to do this–to meet, to endorse publicly, and to be seen in public with those individuals who are spearheading the housecleaning process. And then, of course, the Embassy should make it abundantly clear that the US expects the Uribe government to protect genuinely those doing the housecleaning who have met with Gore. I, for one, would be very surprised if the US is willing to take this position vis-a-vis Uribe. US behavior in this regard so far has not been encouraging. (Indeed, it has been appallingly feckless and fetid.) Time will tell–should Al Gore decide to go.

  2. morayleon Says:

    I have a question: Fifty-five million dollars doesn’t sound like that much money for the US to yank from Colombia’s defense budget. Why should anyone in Colombia be upset if it is pulled?

  3. jcg Says:

    IMHO, it’s become the “strongest message” only because Uribe chose to make it so. Gore apparently wasn’t planning on announcing this publicly, so he shouldn’t get too much credit for what is mostly a reactive PR move anyways. I do not believe that it is so important in itself.

    I do agree, however, in that there are many other concrete actions that would have much more impact on the situation in Colombia than this, such as the alternatives mentioned.

    morayleon: In a sense, you could say that it’s the symbolism rather than the practical importance of the aid that matters the most.

  4. Chris Says:

    I tthink that Al Gore needs to close his pie hole and do some more research before e startss pointing fingers. Alvaro Uribe is the best thing that has ever happened to Colombia. He as done an awesome job getting rid of the para militaries and is really wearing down the fARC. He will not get my vote. Vote Juliani

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