Former Vice-President Al Gore’s office confirmed yesterday that Gore dropped out of a Miami environmental conference simply because Colombian President Ãlvaro 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 â€œuntil 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.â€
The problem with this wording is the expressed desire that this serious chapter be â€œbrought to a close.â€ That desire is already shared by those implicated – or potentially implicated – in the â€œpara-politicsâ€ 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 â€œmove onâ€ – increases every day that the allegations creep closer to him.
Colombia needs to address this â€œchapter in its historyâ€ 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 â€œbrought to a closeâ€ 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 â€œgovernabilityâ€ because the Congress has been semi-paralyzed. Now, some are arguing that the â€œpara-politicsâ€ 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 – â€œLook at the damage you’re doing to us in Washington and Europe with your irresponsible allegations.â€
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 BogotÃ¡, 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.