A gentle but firm rebuke of Chávez Friday links
Jan 242008

They did a good job of keeping it under wraps. We heard nothing about Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Colombia until it was announced on Tuesday. (Not surprisingly, nobody at the U.S. embassy mentioned it to us when we were in Bogotá last week.)

Only yesterday did we see a list of the ten Democratic members of Congress who will be accompanying the Secretary. This made it impossible to prepare any briefing materials or lists of suggested questions to ask.

Those ten members, who will spend about 24 hours in Medellín, are:

  • Eliot Engel (D-Bronx/Westchester, New York), the Chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee;
  • Jane Harman (D-El Segundo/Wilmington, California);
  • Solomon Ortiz (D-Corpus Christi/Brownsville, Texas);
  • Alcee Hastings (D-Ft. Lauderdale/West Palm, Florida);
  • Jim Moran (D-Alexandria/Reston, Virginia);
  • David Scott (D-Jonesboro/Smyrna, Georgia);
  • Rick Larsen (D-Everett/Bellingham, Washington);
  • Melissa Bean (D-Schaumburg, Illinois);
  • Ron Klein (D-Ft. Lauderdale, Florida); and
  • Ed Perlmutter (D-Lakewood, Colorado).

Three of these ten (Bean, Moran and Ortiz) were among the fifteen Democrats who voted for the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005. Two (Moran and Ortiz) have voting records that reflect support for Plan Colombia over the years, while six (Engel, Harman, Hastings, Scott, Larsen and Bean) have tended to vote for amendments to cut military aid and increase economic aid to Colombia. The other two, Klein and Perlmutter, are in their first term.

CIP’s Colombia Program is not an active participant in the Free Trade Agreement debate – our expertise is security and human rights, not economics. (We share Human Rights Watch’s view, however, that the U.S. government should use the pending agreement as “leverage to press Colombia’s government to effectively confront impunity and break the paramilitaries’ power.”)

Beyond the FTA, though, we worry that some of these ten Democrats might come back to Washington with a skewed view of Colombia, and U.S. policy toward Colombia, after their two highly staged days there.

Over the years, we’ve seen trips like these distorting the views that members of Congress hold about Colombia, a country about which they probably don’t think too often. Normally thoughtful members of Congress, prefacing their remarks with “I’ve been to Colombia, I’ve talked to the Colombian people,” go on to declaim about the wonders of Plan Colombia and President Uribe’s hard-line policies.

“I don’t know what you’re going on about, Plan Colombia is working,” they will say to congressional colleagues who have paid longer, unofficial fact-finding visits to less-charming regions of the country. “I think you’re being overly negative.”

We ask the members of Congress in Medellín today: please return to Washington wanting to know more. You’ve only heard half the story. After one day in the Secretary of State’s bubble in Medellín being shown just what they want you to see, you’ve “been to Colombia” as much as a Cancún spring breaker has “been to Mexico.” Your intellectual curiosity should be provoked, not satisfied.

Incidentally, while in Medellín it’s a shame that you won’t be meeting with any of the following people. These uninvited individuals and groups could have given you a much fuller idea of how complex the situation really is in Colombia, and what the true consequences of your aid and trade decisions will be.

  • Medellín has been a center of paramilitary activity, and lately has hosted many of the confessions that top paramilitary leaders have given to prosecutors as part of the “Justice and Peace” demobilization process. Being in Medellín would have offered a great opportunity to speak to the paramilitaries’ victims, who stand vigil outside these prosecutorial sessions. You could have taken a moment to hear of their desire to know what happened to their loved ones, to see a measure of justice done, or to win the return of lands that were stolen from them. You could have pondered why nearly all who aided and funded the paramilitaries who victimized them remain not only unpunished, but unnamed.
  • You could have met with the overworked, underfunded prosecutors and investigators in the “Justice and Peace” unit of Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s office (Fiscalía), to find out what their needs are – everything from manpower to security to the ability to uncover mass graves – and how the United States could be supporting them.
  • You could have met with relatives of civilians who were detained by the Colombian military, only to show up dead, presented as guerrillas killed in combat. Colombia has seen a rash of these “extrajudicial executions” in the past few years [PDF], and the Colombian Army’s Medellín-based 4th Brigade is alleged to be one of the worst offenders.
  • Medellín is the capital of a department (province) called Antioquia. In 2006 Antioquia, according to the UN, was fifth among Colombia’s 32 departments in production of coca, the plant used to make cocaine – more than 15,000 acres were detected there that year. Being in Medellín would have offered an opportunity to speak with coca-growing families, to find out why they chose to plant the crop, and what economic options remained after U.S.-funded spray planes fumigated them.
  • You could have met with members of indigenous nations living just a few hours’ drive from Medellín, such as the Embera-Katío. Beset by the conflict and by people who would evict them to profit from their land, these nations’ cultures, languages and traditions face the very real possibility of extinction.
  • You could have spoken to Medellín’s ombudsman (Personería) or to respected NGOs like the Popular Training Institute (IPC) to get an overview of the city’s complex security situation, including concerns that new armed groups, fueled by the drug trade, may be asserting themselves in the poor barrios that ring the city.
  • You could have met with Medellín-based negotiators and accompaniers of the ongoing, promising peace process with the ELN guerrilla group. They would have explained the possibilities and challenges that these negotiations face, and how the United States could be supporting them.

We are pleased that the ten Democratic House members accompanying Secretary of State Rice today have taken an interest in Colombia. We encourage them to remain engaged, and to seek a much broader spectrum of views and facts, after they return to Washington.

5 Responses to “Colombia in a bubble”

  1. danj Says:

    Obviously no 24-hour congressional delegation can fully immerse themselves in Colombian politics due to time and security restraints, but, if Tom Shannon is to be believed, they seem to have designed the agenda to include some critical voices:

    “During our time in Medellin we’ll have an opportunity to meet with trade unionists, both those in favor of the free trade agreement and those who oppose it. We’ll have an opportunity to meet with businessmen operating in Medellin. We’ll have an opportunity to meet with local elected officials, such as the mayor, meet demobilize combatants, tour some examples of industries that benefit from trading relationships with the United States, also meet with the Attorney General of Colombia, who’s playing such an important role in addressing human rights abuses and especially violence against trade unionists, and then finally meet with President Uribe and members of his cabinet.”

    Obviously meetings with trade unionists are a response to Democratic concerns. If they had expressed reservations over indigenous rights or fumigation, that may have been part of the debate, but the Democratic leadership has highlighted a single issue, union violence, and that is what the administration is responding to.

    Also, Attorney General Iguaran is hardly an Uribe patsy and raised some eyebrows in Washington with his independence and frank plea for more resources. He’s a good substitute for meeting with individual prosecutors.

    Likewise, mayor Fajardo is rarely accused of being a pawn of the empire and may well have some critical words about the current US policy in addition to his inspiring story of reclaiming Medellin.

    Taking the delegation somewhere other than Bogota or Cartagena is progress, as well, as they are less likely to be surrounded by government officials and tourist traps the entire time.

    Though not comprehensive, of course, this delegation seems better designed than most to provide interaction with independent voices.

  2. Cayman Says:

    Adam, went on the delegation. We met people whose families had been killed by paramilitaries. We met prosecutors. We met Uribe, asked him what we wanted and we met people of the left. Since you weren’t there, why do you insist it was a dog and pony show just because you weren’t in on it? Does the US embassy have an obligation to tell you everything? Do they answer to you? Do you know anything at all about Condi Rice? Do you think she’s that stupid and dishonest? Speaking of dog and pony shows, what do you call your secretive McGovern/Delahunt Tour? Odds high you didn’t meet any of the pro-free-trade union leaders we met, who form the majority of union leaders in Colombia. I’d put money on it you didn’t. And by the way, you didn’t conceal your source very well, I can tell who it is.

  3. Adam Isacson Says:

    Whoever you are, you certainly came back from Colombia feeling hostile.

    “Since you weren’t there, why do you insist it was a dog and pony show just because you weren’t in on it?”

    - Because I’ve seen dozens of these staged trips since the Plan Colombia debates back in 2000.

    “Does the US embassy have an obligation to tell you everything? Do they answer to you?”

    - I am a citizen of the United States. The U.S. embassy is my government’s representation and main presence in Colombia. They “answer to,” and are accountable to, all U.S. citizens.

    “Do you know anything at all about Condi Rice? Do you think she’s that stupid and dishonest?”

    - Let me say unequivocally that Condi Rice is not stupid.

    “Speaking of dog and pony shows, what do you call your secretive McGovern/Delahunt Tour?”

    - Secretive? The US and Colombian governments had full copies of our agenda. The US embassy took us to all of our meetings, and accompanied us in many of them.

    “Odds high you didn’t meet any of the pro-free-trade union leaders we met, who form the majority of union leaders in Colombia.”

    - Mr. McGovern, whom I accompanied, didn’t meet with _any_ union leaders – our focus was the humanitarian accord. And if you returned from the trip thinking that the majority of Colombian union leaders are pro-FTA, you definitely got a skewed view of the country.

    “And by the way, you didn’t conceal your source very well, I can tell who it is.”

    - My source for what?

  4. Adam Isacson Says:

    This from today’s El Tiempo: http://www.eltiempo.com/economia/2008-01-26/ARTICULO-WEB-NOTA_INTERIOR-3933430.html

    Once in Medellín, where they had a cocktail party that night, Rice leapt into words of praise for the country and especially for President Uribe: “He has already done the hardest part,” she told businesspeople and union leaders.

    Yesterday, Rice was at the Explora science and technology park, in downtown Medellín. There, she was accompanied by Mayor Alonso Salazar and the 9 congresspeople. From one of the terraces, they saw the Botanical Garden and the Planetarium, two symbols of the city’s transformation.

    Later, Rice met with demobilized AUC members. “Ms. Condoleezza urged us to continue with the process, not to give up with what we are doing for this country, and invited us to keep our compañeros from returning [to paramilitarism],” said Geovanny Marín, director of the Corporación Democracia, made up of demobilized AUC members. The delegation committed itself to maintaining aid, through USAID, and to explore new fronts for collaboration.

    Both Rice and the congresspeople were in Rionegro, viewing the flowers at Cultivos El Trigal. They asked questions about how it worked. “Hello, hello,” was all that Rice said to the workers who, with cameras in hand, took photos.

    The visit ended with a horsemanship exhibition from Uribe. The president invited Rice to mount one of the horses. She simply smiled.

    The U.S. delegation, presided by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, took up an entire floor of the Interncontinental Hotel in Medellín. In total, 60 rooms were occupied during the two days of the stay of the high official and her accompaniers.

    At night, after a welcome cocktail, Rice and the Democratic congresspeople went to five of Medellín’s best restaurants.

    The restaurants were exclusively reserved days before by the U.S. delegation’s logistics personnel. The high official ate at the Country Club, in El Poblado, together with Ambassador Carolina Barco and Foreign Minister Fernando Araújo. Her menu wasn’t revealed, though people close to the delegation said that she loves fruits and light food.

    The U.S. delegation was guarded by about 800 policemen and the Embassy’s guard. Nine equipped, armored vehicles were sent from Bogotá.

  5. o-lu Says:

    Adam,

    Acabo de ver la nota de El Tiempo que colgatse en este comentario. Viste la foto que la acompanha? Pusieron al general Moore, el unico oficial negro de los ejércitos colombianos, y que en realidad esta afectado a Cali, al lado de Condoleeza. No me extranharia que asi le estén “demostrando” que Colombia es una democracia racial, ademas de un lugar donde se hacen ingentes esfuerzos por los DH, por respetar a la oposicion, por luchar contra la impunidad, etc.

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