For the past four years, Marc Grossman has served as the undersecretary of State for political affairs, the number three position in the State Department and usually the most senior post held by a foreign service officer. In his occasional dealings with Colombia, Grossman has made some statements with which we strongly disagree, but he has been relatively thoughtful and measured. He has usually listened to other points of view, and his support of the current policy of military aid and fumigations can be described more as â€œmanagerialâ€ than â€œpassionately ideological.â€
Grossman is leaving soon, to be replaced by Nicholas Burns (another non-neoconservative). Last week, while on what will probably be his last official trip to Colombia, the undersecretary gave a very noteworthy interview to El Tiempo. Noteworthy for both good and bad reasons.
Grossmanâ€™s most encouraging statements had to do with the conditions under which the United States would support for the Uribe governmentâ€™s negotiations with paramilitary groups. Instead of equivocating, he went solidly on record in support of a strong â€œtruth, justice and reparationsâ€ law that seeks the complete dismantlement of the AUC.
Q: What kind of law is needed?
A: We hope that it is a strong law, a law that should set a precedent for the FARC and the ELN. As such, it should guarantee the dismantlement of the AUC, stop its financing and confiscate its properties. It should also assure that justice is done, that the door is open for the reparation of victims, and it should be transparent. That is what we have said in this visit to President Uribe and Senator Pardo.
Q: Does the United States support the pardoning of paramilitary leaders in order to achieve peace?
A: We are on the side of justice and we believe that justice must be done. We think that whoever has committed a crime should pay for it and should be punished. And let there be no doubt that we consistently support the extradition of those who are wanted by the U.S. justice system.
Q: How does the United States view the probability that some leaders of the AUC might participate in politics after the negotiation process?
To us, the AUC is a terrorist organization, and at the end of the demobilization process, it should completely cease to exist.
While brief statements like these of course leave plenty of wiggle room, these are the strongest words about the paramilitary talks that we have heard from a U.S. official in months. By calling for asset seizures, reparations, punishment and dismantlement, Grossman appears to endorse a very strong law for dealing with demobilizing paramilitary leaders: something close to the legislation proposed by Sen. Rafael Pardo and other legislators, and something so strongly worded that, should it pass, Colombian government peace negotiator Luis Carlos Restrepo would probably submit his resignation again.
The rest of the interview is less encouraging. Grossman repeats the administrationâ€™s tough line on Venezuela, criticizing the â€œnegative roleâ€ the ChÃ¡vez government is playing in the region, while failing to make clear how U.S. policy is encouraging the moderates and isolating the extremists (instead of the opposite) in that very polarized country.
Then, in a real misstep, Grossman effectively denies that a conflict exists in Colombia.
Q: Is there an armed conflict or a terrorist threat in Colombia?
A: It is an attack on Colombian democracy by three narcoterrorist groups.
This is more than a semantic issue. If Colombiaâ€™s violence is not a â€œconflictâ€ but just a criminal or terrorist nuisance, several things change. First, much of international humanitarian law goes out the window, since Protocol II of the Geneva accords does not apply. Second, it is impossible to consider negotiating any political demands with any of the armed groups (as happened in El Salvador and Guatemala) â€“ just the terms of their surrender and disarmament. (We discuss the â€œis it a conflictâ€ issue more thoroughly in another posting.)
At the Cartagena donorsâ€™ meeting earlier this month, the Uribe government tried to sell the idea that no conflict exists in Colombia. Most countries in attendance refused to buy into that notion â€“ especially since, while the meeting was occurring, the FARC was proving itself able to hit military targets in several parts of the country â€“ and the meetingâ€™s final declaration includes a reference to the conflict in Colombia.
In his declaration as U.S. representative to the donorsâ€™ meeting, USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios was careful not to use the word â€œconflict,â€ but the U.S. position was still somewhat ambiguous. Grossmanâ€™s response last week left all ambiguity aside: the U.S. government is now on record endorsing the Uribe governmentâ€™s view of the violence in Colombia. Because of its implications for humanitarian standards and future negotiations, this is a disturbing development.