Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos had more strong words for critics of the current makeup of U.S. aid to Colombia. An interview in Sunday’s edition of Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper was at least the third time in a week that Santos went on the attack against members of the U.S. Congress, U.S. human rights and labor advocates, and Colombians who have traveled to the United States to provide a perspective that differs from the official government line.
Santos comes up with a novel response to these critics: Colombia should abandon Plan Colombia, downgrade relations with the United States, and seek relations with governments, like China, that don’t value human rights as strongly.
While the Vice President is free to vent his anger, his comments represent a new tone from high Colombian government officials. While Colombian Foreign Minister Jaime BermÃºdez quickly issued a very brief statement insisting that Plan Colombia continue, Santos’s words don’t appear to be an accident. It’s hard to imagine that the vice-president is speaking without some sort of prior authorization.
Statements like these serve a strategic goal: the hope is that in the U.S. debate, advocates of mostly military aid, lax human rights conditions and the Colombia FTA will point to them and say, “Thanks to [The Obama administration] [Congressional Democrats] [Human rights NGOs] [Labor unions], we’re ‘losing Colombia.’”
If Santos’s goal is to raise such concerns, he’s missing the point. During the Bush administration, many did indeed worry about “losing” Colombia, since the United States had so few other close friends in the Americas. As President Obama’s friendly meeting with Brazilian President Lula da Silva demonstrated on Saturday, however, the new administration is trying to undo that damage and develop similarly close relations with other countries in the region. For Colombia, this would mean passing from being the United States’ “last best friend” to “one close friend among several.”
The Vice President’s words, then, may not have their desired effect in the U.S. debate. His attacks, however, nearly always include harsh words for Colombians who come to the United States to discuss their country’s human rights or labor situation. The purpose of those words is clearer: to intimidate those who might be considering similar travel. (We include at the end of this post a response from a frequent target of these attacks, victims’ rights advocate and Liberal Party Senator Juan Fernando Cristo.)
Here, thanks to help from CIP Intern Stacy Ulmer, is a translation of relevant portions of Santos’s interview with El Tiempo journalist Yamid Amat.
â€œThe treatment that we have received on the part of sectors of American civil society and on the part of sectors of the Congress of that country is unfair to Colombia. And I’ll say something more: it is despicable. Look: like so many Colombians, I have felt humiliated in scenarios where they have mistreated us. Precisely, when we are not only allies and friends, but the only country in Latin America where the image of the United States is positive. Nevertheless, they mistreat us, and do they ever! We have to consider this cost when evaluating Plan Colombia’s effectiveness,â€ added the Vice President.
Furthermore, he added, this help from the United States to fight narcotrafficking â€œhas already fulfilled its purpose.â€
Yamid Amat: What does that mean?
Francisco Santos, Vice President of the Republic: That it is not necessary now. I know that this goes against what the President and Ministry of Defense say, but I believe that it is time that we measure the political cost along with its effectiveness.
Q: What is Plan Colombia, really?
It is 550 million dollars of aid of which the third part goes to contractors. 400 million are left to us. Fifty percent goes to social projects, which we could take over ourselves, and the other half, some 200 million, does go to Plan Colombia. A large part of this money is spent on gasoline and transportation.
[Note: We estimate U.S. aid to Colombia, from all sources, at about $650 million this year. About 63 percent is military and police aid. As we have noted before, roughly half of U.S. military and police aid is delivered through private contractors. Most U.S. economic aid is managed by private contractors as well, instead of being provided directly by USAID. If the Vice President is estimating that a third of U.S. aid goes to contractors' salaries and overhead, then, he may be correct.]
I’ll be sincere: Plan Colombia has helped us a lot and was very important at a critical moment, from the political to the police and military against narco-trafficking. Now, it is not needed.
Q: But what relation exists between the mistreatment you denounce and Plan Colombia?
It’s that a small political sector that has dominated with a negative vision of Colombia in Congress asks us to submit silently to the outrage and to bow down reverentially or, if not, they threaten not to give Plan Colombia.
Q: Will its termination not affect the eradication of coca crops?
We are eradicating with our own money. Manual eradication, which has been proved to be more effective than fumigation, reached 90 thousand hectares last year.
Q: And ending Plan Colombia won’t mean a fight with the United States?
By no means. For what I have said I will surely have my ears pulled [be lightly punished] by the foreign minister, but I believe that it is the moment for our relations to evolve to where there is no Plan Colombia, and to design a different policy with the United States; to seek a rethinking that brings us to where we are allies with common interests, allies with common objectives, common values because we have the same democratic values, but allied not with the asymmetry that there is today, but looking face to face, country to country. With mutual respect.
Q: Will they treat us better in anywhere else in the world?
There are many sensible political forums, including within the United States, economic forums, where the image of Colombia is impressive. They see us as the pretty girl [niÃ±a bonita: roughly, the showcase or best example] of Latin America for the first time in the last 40 years. I spent three days touring this nation with the Vice-president of China and his conclusion was of astonishment before the great country that he found.
I am sure that we will remain on Chinaâ€™s radar, now that they have confirmed that we are a solid, respectable country, with a growing economy in spite of the world crisis.
Q: And about the issue of human rights?
First, it seems terrifying to me that it would be our own legislators and a small sector of magistrates who present our nation overseas as a state without guarantees [of political expression or dissent], of cruel leaders, of bloodthirsty institutions and with a mafia society, when the results demonstrate everything to the contrary. And if they have opinions that differ from the government’s, it makes no sense for them speak in other countries on matters that should be debated internally.
Q: Of which legislators and magistrates do you speak?
One example of many. Senator (Juan Fernando) Cristo presented a bill about reparations for victims of the violence. He went to Washington and New York to present his bill and to say, incorrectly and with a great deal of bias, that the Government opposes it, when it is under discussion in the Congress, and when there is nowhere else in the world with such an an important, integral project of administrative reparations for victims, which is going to cost the country a ‘bargain’ of 3.5 billion dollars.
Q: But the issue is that Senator Cristo proposes that the State should give reparations not only to those victims of illegal groups, but also victims of the Stateâ€¦
The President is flexible on this issue. Within limits, obviously. Our differences are on the fiscal issue. We gain nothing with a perfect law that is not applied. We are sensitive and at the same time realistic. To give reparations to the victims of the 50 years of conflict that this country has lived through, if not done judiciously, could destroy our finances.
[Note: This is new. If the Colombian government drops its opposition to including victims of state actors in the Victims' Law that Senator Cristo sponsored, one of the principal areas of disagreement would disappear. Remaining areas of disagreement, then, would focus on, in Senator Cristo's words, "provisions in the law recognizing the governmentâ€™s responsibility to guarantee victimsâ€™ permanent right to reparations, establishing the presumption of the victimâ€™s good faith, and interpreting state jurisdictional questions in the victimâ€™s favor."
Senator Cristo's response to Vice-President Santos is below.]
Q: And which magistrates motivate your critique?
I feel very proud of our Supreme Court and so I proclaim it all over the world as one of the strengths of our democracy. No other country can show 60 legislators in jail due to the Court’s courageous and legal actions. But the way that magistrate (IvÃ¡n) VelÃ¡squez [the Supreme Court's alternative justice who is leading investigations of the "para-politics" scandal] mistreats and throws mud at our country’s overseas image is unacceptable. The magistrates should speak through their verdicts, that is what they are recognized for.
[Note: Judge VelÃ¡squez, the chief para-politics investigator, has been a constant target of attacks from top Uribe government officials and has been under constant surveillance from the government's secret police. To our knowledge, he has neither traveled to Washington nor been in close contact with U.S. media or human rights groups. It is not clear what actions to "mistreat and throw mud at" Colombia's overseas image the vice-president is referencing.]
Q: But, the Court asks for respect for its autonomyâ€¦
Autonomy and independence that it has and is respected. The message that I would like to send to the Court and the parties in opposition of this: let’s resolve our problems here and not use the international scenario to carry out campaigns that do damage, not to the Government, which is what they seek, but to the country and to themselves, because the prestige of our courts overseas is absolutely overwhelming and fills any Colombian with pride.
Q: On the issue of human rights, doesn’t the number of trade union assassinations seem terrifying to you?
That is a half truth, and many statistics are a product of manipulation. They present everything as persecution when the greatest massacre of trade unionists happened in UrabÃ¡, product of a confrontation between two unions, Sintrabanano and Sintagro, one close to the FARC and other to the EPL. And the second-largest massacre happened when the FARC murdered hundreds of trade unionists from Sintrainagro, after the demobilization of the EPL. Look: during the hearing in the United States that took place weeks ago [a hearing on labor rights in Rep. George Miller's House Committee on Education and Labor] they showed two cases as part of the labor massacre. In the first, one of the â€˜victimsâ€™ died of a heart attack, and the second, was a case of a teacher who really was killed by her husband, who later committed suicide. And that was presented overseas as labor unionist persecution.
[Note: these two cases bear no resemblance to any discussed at the House Education and Labor Committee's hearing last month.]
Q: But at the margins of these anecdotal episodes, it is affirmed that more than 2,600 unionists were assassinated since 1986, and that 482 of these murders have occurred under the current administration…
Excuse me, that is not anecdotal. It is serious. Every case is very serious. But the truth is that the numbers have decreased more than 70 percent since 2002; there is more justice: 170 cases were resolved during the past few years, and the numerous millions of dollars we invested in protection are working. What they do not say, and also do not want to be known, is how many (murders) were due to their union work and how many were due to the violence that we all suffer from.
Q: Is there guerrilla or paramilitary infiltration in labor unions?
Of course there is some. Infiltration from the FARC and the ELN. It is a very tiny minority that does serious damage to Colombian labor. The capture of a labor leader with â€˜el Negro Antonioâ€™ [Juan EfraÃn Mendoza of the Fensuagro agricultural workers' union was captured during a raid on a FARC camp late last month] is just the tip of this small iceberg.
Senator Cristo sent us his response to the vice-president’s critique of his visit to the United States. Here is a translation.
With reference to the declarations of the Vice-President of the Republic to El Tiempo yesterday, about the work I’ve carried out in the United States to seek international support for the Victims’ Law, allow me to state:
1. I beg Vice President Santos’ pardon for not having informed him in an opportune fashion that I would be traveling to the United States for this purpose. Next time I will communicate it to him in advance, and I will send him my agenda of study and work for his prior authorization.
2. I am glad that the Vice President, after a year and a half of the law’s consideration in the Congress of the Republic, is addressing the issue for the first time, when his office is supposedly in charge of these human rights issues in the country. This very week I will send him the different texts of the bill and the differences that exist with the government, so that he may study them with care and participate actively in the discussions, so that he may help us finally build consensus with the administration.
3. I receive with prudence and humility the Vice President’s accusation that I am working in Washington and New York to seek support and international financing for a law that would give fair and dignified reparations to more than three million fellow citizens who are victims of the armed conflict. And, obviously, I will keep doing so because my commitment is with the country and the victims, not with the administration, and even less so with the Vice President.