Here’s a translation of an article on U.S.-Colombia relations that appeared in yesterday’s edition of Semana, Colombia’s most-circulated newsweekly. The article may read a bit like an opinion column, but is unsigned and appears in the magazine’s news section.
Though we don’t agree with all of its conclusions and characterizations, it is a useful view of how mainstream Colombian public opinion – or at least a significant sector of it – is viewing the country’s relations with the new U.S. administration.
[Note as of 9:30AM: Semana has posted its own English translation of this article to its site.]
Few times in Colombia’s history has the United States stuck its nose so deeply into internal politics. And the amazing thing is, it is doing so with the government’s approval.
Ever since Colombia accepted US$25 million from the United States “to eliminate all enmities produced by the political events that occurred in Panama in 1903″ as part of the 1914 Urrutia-Thompson treaty, the government in Washington DC won itself a place of honor at the table of Colombian politics. A place that it has not abandoned, as was demonstrated last week. On Sunday, the government had to back down after Vice President Francisco Santos proposed giving Plan Colombia a proper burial. The high official complained that the few dollars of aid received do not justify the mistreatment that certain circles in Washington give the country. But he was rapidly deauthorized by Foreign Minister Jaime BermÃºdez: “We must continue with Plan Colombia. This Plan is needed to consolidate results in the fight against narcotrafficking and terrorism.”
Days earlier, the minister of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos, had announced that U.S. equipment and aircraft would move from the base in Manta (Ecuador) to Colombian territory. On Wednesday, Colombia awoke to the news that Sen. Patrick Leahy [D-Vermont] had frozen US$72 million in military aid, due to his concern about “false positives” [cases of military personnel killing civilians and presenting the bodies as those of armed-group members killed in combat]. On Thursday it was reported that the United States will request the extradition of David Murcia, of DMG. This informational onslaught, far from being exceptional, reflects the degree of interference that the three branches of U.S. power have in Colombia today, which is possibly the highest in the history of relations between the two countries.
U.S. influence is not new, but it has rarely affected the daily events of Colombians’ lives the way it is being experienced today. If the pillar of any state is justice, in Colombia it is written in English. The oral, accusatory criminal justice system, which has been put in practice in the past few years, is not only inspired by the U.S. system, but was promoted and financed by Washington. Colombian prosecutors are instructed by their U.S. peers.
Its participation doesn’t end there. As sources in the Attorney-General’s Office [FiscalÃa] confirmed to Semana, U.S. officials play a leading role on several critical fronts, such as the use of polygraphs to determine the suitability of Colombian prosecutors. In cases that interest the United States – narcotrafficking, human rights – FBI or Justice department agents intervene directly.
The military justice system is transforming in image to resemble that applied in the Pentagon, through the training of Colombian judges and prosecutors.
Extradition, previously an exceptional tool to combat the largest drug capos (the MedellÃn and Cali cartels), is used indiscriminately today. There have been more than 800 extradited since 2002, of which only a small percentage would fit in the category of too powerful or dangerous to be tried in Colombia, which is the raison d’etre by which extradition was justified.
Also frequent are the visits of the attorney-general, Mario IguarÃ¡n, or other judicial branch officials, to Washington, not only to meet with their counterparts in the Department of Justice – which is logical – but also to present excuses and explanations to members of Congress and their advisors.
The accountability to gringo congressmen is no accident: Colombian institutions, among them the Attorney-General’s Office, receive more than US$500 million in U.S. contributions each year. The receipt of this money is what gives U.S. politicians carte blanche to involve themselves in Colombian affairs. And they do it with enthusiasm: not only in justice, but in issues of human rights, national security, social policy and even in how labor relations are enforced in Colombia.
Thanks to the so-called Leahy Amendment, approved in 1997 during the Samper government, the delivery of aid to military units suspected of human-rights violations can be denied. [Note: the Leahy Amendment applies to U.S. military aid to the whole world, not just Colombia.] The norm is so vague and subject to interpretation that any member of the security forces is vulnerable to being singled out as a wrongdoer. The root of the problem is that Leahy, as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, can singlehandedly stop the disbursement of resources, as happened last week with the US$72 million from Plan Colombia. [Note: Sen. Leahy chairs the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee of Appropriations, not the full committee. The US$72 million has already been on hold for several months. Note also the article's outrage about Leahy's hold, and lack of outrage about soldiers killing civilians.] Normally, these decisions are made by Tim Rieser, who is charged with following Colombian issues. This means that the armed forces can come to be subject to the whims of a congressional staffer who lives in Washington.
Leahy is not the only legislator who plays this role of vigilance or influence. Rep. Gregory Meeks [D-New York] convinced the Uribe government that if it paid attention to Afro-Colombians, the Black Caucus (a group of 41 African-American members of Congress) would support the Free-Trade Agreement. This explained the naming of the Minister of Culture and a vice-minister of Social Protection in June 2007, as Semana confirmed from sources in both governments. It is not gratuitous that US$15 million in Plan Colombia funds must be invested in Afro-Colombian communities in the Pacific coast.
In the delicate national-security sphere, U.S. participation, though discrete, manifests itself in the presence of that country’s soldiers and contractors in strategic places: the bases of Tres Esquinas [CaquetÃ¡/Putumayo], Apiay [Meta], Tolemaida [Tolima], Arauca and Buenaventura [Valle del Cauca]. Much donated equipment cannot be moved or used without prior U.S. authorization. If the U.S. aircraft and equipment are moved from Manta to Colombia, will they be allowed the same autonomy?
Colombia-U.S. integration in defense affairs is so great that the Colombian government often uses the Pentagon’s procurement system (this achieves economies of scale, a former security official explained to Semana).
The so-called “Plan of Consolidation” in areas formerly controlled by guerrillas has a strong U.S. component. Many of the resources come from the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID). This imprint allows U.S. officials to have a voice and a vote over how and where the money is spent.
This “North Americanization” of Colombia precedes the Uribe administration. The war on drugs and the FARC caused governments to become closer to Washington; but the current administration has gone even farther than its predecessors. The Colombian government signed an accord that grants immunity to official U.S. personnel accused of crimes against humanity so that they may not be sent to the International Criminal Court, but only to their country’s judges.
But maybe the largest signal that Colombia increasingly resembles an extension of the United States are the actions of the so-called opposition. Liberal Senator Juan Fernando Cristo, for example, just returned from a journey to Washington DC, where he explained and sought support for the victims’ law. Piedad CÃ³rdoba wants to hand over the keys to the humanitarian accord to Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern [D-Massachusetts]. Colombian unions allied themselves with their U.S. colleagues against the FTA because it would take jobs away from U.S. workers. And thanks to pressure from U.S. unions, the law governing strikes in Colombia was changed.
There are multiple areas in which U.S. economic aid gives that country influence over internal affairs that are strategic for Colombia. Faced with this situation, the solution is not to “satanize” Washington’s aid, which without a doubt has been beneficial to Colombia in such important areas as human rights, security, and the struggle against narcotrafficking and guerrillas. But nor is it helpful for many national security and internal policy decisions to be subject to authorization by U.S. officials, as often happens. This constitutes interference in the country’s internal affairs, which damages national sovereignty.