Congress: don’t let the trail go cold on NGO break-ins Colombia’s new Senate president speaks out for peace
Jul 232007
President Uribe speaking in Queens, New York, on July 22
President Uribe speaking in Queens, New York, on July 22. Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) is second from the left, with Ambassador Carolina Barco.

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has a habit of making statements that seem so jaw-droppingly hyperbolic or combative that one assumes they were simply gaffes. Upon reading them, one’s first reaction is to think, “Wow, he really went off the reservation that time.”

But then, instead of going into damage-control mode, the Colombian Presidency will prominently feature these declarations on its website, as though they are serious statements of policy.

These non-gaffes have been coming at a rapid pace lately. Here are four examples from the past week.

1. “Colombia has put paramilitarism behind it”

At the opening session of Colombia’s Congress, July 20:

Colombia has put paramilitarism behind it. If by this is understood the organization of illegal armed groups to combat guerrillas, there is no paramilitarism today because combating guerrillas is now, in practice, the exclusive task of our democratic institutionality. If by paramilitarism is meant the criminal collusion of individuals in the security forces with these illegal groups, today there is no paramilitarism because these ties, which were never institutional, have begun to show categorical signs of ceasing to exist.

The re-formed paramilitaries, approximately three thousand, and those who have not submitted to the Justice and Peace Law, are dedicated to narcotrafficking, allied or competing with the guerrillas, and they are severely pursued by our armed institutions.

This is a remarkable assertion, bringing to mind Dick Cheney’s 2005 affirmation that the Iraqi insurgency was “in its last throes.” The most eloquent response I’ve seen comes from María Jimena Duzán’s column in today’s El Tiempo.

It is not true that the country has put paramilitarism behind it. To the contrary, what is growing day by day, at a dizzying rate, is the number of threatened victims, to such an extent that they have begun to avoid showing up at the [paramilitary leaders'] confessions. …

In several regions, the population still feels their intimidating presence. After a period of relative peace, things have begun dramatically to resemble the recent past. That has happened in Catatumbo, in Putumayo, in Chocó, in zones of Bolívar, Sucre, Cesar, Córdoba and the entire Magdalena Medio. All of this indicates that, despite what the government says, there is evidence that paramilitarism – far from being overcome – is recycling itself into new forms, ever more mafioso and less visible, as the last report from the OAS mission warns.

2. “Less budget should be given to fumigations, which should be just a marginal recourse”

At the opening session of Colombia’s Congress, July 20:

We are carrying out conversations with the United States about what would be the new stage of the “Plan Colombia” against illicit drugs. We believe that less budget should be given to fumigations, which should be just a marginal recourse, and much mroe support for manual eradication, which our government has introduced on a large scale and basically financed with its own resources. Manual eradication has produced excellent results.

At a “town-hall meeting” (Consejo Comunal) in Bogotá, July 21:

Yesterday I said that the new version of Plan Colombia is being negotiated with the United States, and that it is important to diminish resources for fumigation and increase resources for manual eradication.

Why did I say that? Because all of the last years have shown us that while fumigation may be necessary under some circumstances, in some areas, in the last three years our experience has made clear that manual eradication is more effective.

With fumigation we have observed that it is easier to recover the crops. With manual eradication, no.

With fumigation it is more possible for mistakes to happen with legal crops. With manual eradication, no.

When fumigation makes mistakes, instead of achieving Colombians’ support for drug eradication, it provokes complaints and reactions against drug eradication. We have observed that manual eradication makes communities more fully committed to eliminating drugs.

This is Uribe’s first clear admission that the U.S.-funded policy of aerial herbicide fumigation has not worked. It is welcome and necessary. No Bush Administration official has ever gone on the record so plainly stating the obvious about fumigation’s failure to reduce coca supplies.

3. “We can’t allow unionists to ally with the guerrillas”

At a rally with Colombians in New York, July 22:

It pains me to learn that several days ago in Quito, in a meeting of Communist parties from throughout the continent – which isn’t of interest because ours is a free country – a declaration was produced in which support was offered to the FARC, and that some Colombian union leaders were at that meeting. We cannot permit that: either carry out union organizing or carry out guerrilla warfare, but this wicked mixture does much damage to Colombia.

Just as we cannot allow business owners to kill workers, just as we cannot allow business owners to ally with paramilitaries, nor can we allow unionists to ally with the guerrillas.

At a “town-hall meeting” (Consejo Comunal) in Bogotá, July 21:

That is what makes no sense. How can it be that while a sector of the U.S. Congress – misinformed, not knowing that this is the government that has dismantled paramilitarism and has effectively protected unions – says that they still can’t consider approving the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia because unionists are killed here, how can it be that while that happens in Washington, in Quito there are unions signing a political declaration in favor of terrorism. That can’t be.

Did three Colombian union leaders really sign a document vowing “solidarity with the struggle of the insurgent movements in Colombia” at a clandestine Ecuador meeting attended by guerrilla representatives?

If so, Uribe has a point, and appears determined to use the incident as ammunition in the debate over the free trade agreement with the United States.

However, the facts may be different. Reports the Associated Press:

Segundo Canon, a leader of the Sintratelefonos union, said the unionists didn’t know “until the last minute” that Colombia’s guerrilla groups were also there and didn’t sign the declaration. …

An adviser for two of the unions, Sintraemcali and Sintratelefonos, confirmed that union representatives attended the Quito meeting. But the official, Rodrigo Acosta, said they neither saw the final declaration nor took take part in the final day.

For their part, the organizers of the Ecuador meeting denied that Colombian guerrilla representatives were even present, explaining that they sent written declarations over the Internet.

If the union leaders didn’t sign anything, and weren’t even present when the declaration was read, then President Uribe (and Vice-President Francisco Santos, who was first to comment on it) is being too hasty in his eagerness to tie labor leaders to guerrillas.

4. “The criticism we reject comes from those who … harbor the hope that FARC terrorism may come to victory.”

At a joint press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Bogotá, July 16:

Constructive criticism is welcome, because it helps us. The criticism we reject is that which comes from those who have sought to blemish, to stain our security policy, because they harbor the hope that FARC terrorism may come to victory in Colombia.”

The FARC were very close to victory here in Colombia. What stopped them was the arrival of our government.

It is just wrong to say that the FARC – which at the height of its power, in late 1998, could not even take the remote provincial town of Mitú – has ever been close to rolling into Bogotá and seizing power. And in fact, it was during Andrés Pastrana’s administration that the Colombian government began to win major victories against the FARC on the battlefield (Operation Berlin 2000; Operation Gato Negro 2001; Operation Sumapaz 2001; Operation Tsunami 2001).

More troubling, though, is Uribe’s assertion that many of his critics support the guerrillas. Many thoughtful people in Colombia’s opposition criticize Uribe’s security policies because they believe they will bring more human rights abuse, needlessly prolong the conflict and do long-term harm to Colombia’s democratic institutions.

On the other hand, it is very hard to find someone who criticizes Uribe’s security policies because he or she actually wants the FARC to rule Colombia. To whom was Uribe referring, then?

And why would he say such a thing while sharing a stage with the prime minister of Canada?

One Response to “Yes, he meant to say that”

  1. jcg Says:

    Point 1 is either an outright lie or simply an extremely exaggerated statement, depending on how you look at it. But it’s undeniable that paramilitarism is still far from “overcome”, even in the best case scenario.

    Point 2 seems like at an attempt at opportunistic rhetoric considering the recent Democratic attempts to reduce funds for fumigations, but such a change would definitely be welcomed in practice.

    Point 3 refers to a real event, in the sense that the meeting did take place and that such a declaration was clearly and unapologetically pro-guerrilla.

    But there’s definitely room for questioning what the unions actually did or knew about it, even if not in the exaggerated and potentially dangerous terms that Uribe and Santos are employing in their search for political points.

    I understand that there were no signatures on the document per se but that the names of the unions (supposedly) did originally appear at the end of it, along with the other organizations. Even if there wasn’t an explicit endorsement, the unions should at least ask for their names to be removed. Apparently they aren’t present in the most current version of the text, from what that website shows.

    Finally, I’ll just add that Point 4 once again illustrates that Uribe still has an annoying and potentially dangerous tendency to label some of his critics as “terrorists” or “pro-terrorists” in some way, shape or form. Even when he has referred to specific people/organizations, that claim continues to be very questionable and definitely regrettable, in light of the fact that the majority of his critics don’t appear to fit the description by any means.

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