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 BogotÃ¡ 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 MedellÃn, 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 MedellÃn 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 MedellÃn being shown just what they want you to see, you’ve “been to Colombia” as much as a CancÃºn spring breaker has “been to Mexico.” Your intellectual curiosity should be provoked, not satisfied.
Incidentally, while in MedellÃn 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.
- MedellÃn 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 MedellÃn 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 (FiscalÃa), 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 MedellÃn-based 4th Brigade is alleged to be one of the worst offenders.
- MedellÃn 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 MedellÃn 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 MedellÃn, such as the Embera-KatÃo. 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 MedellÃn’s ombudsman (PersonerÃa) 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 MedellÃn-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.