In a bitter and disturbing session a week ago Thursday (May 26), the Colombian Congress debated whether to censure the minister of defense, Jorge Alberto Uribe, for failing to show up when requested to testify a few weeks earlier. Ironically, the debate was called off early â€“ before the minister could even give his statement â€“ because, as legislators steadily left the chamber over the course of the debate, the Congress did not have a quorum present.
Uribe (no relation to President Uribe), Colombiaâ€™s tenth defense minister in the fourteen years that civilians have occupied the position, has a difficult job. He is the head of a small civilian staff charged with overseeing more than 360,000 military and police, whose commanders have traditionally been fierce defenders of their privileges and resentful of civilian attempts to increase oversight or to guide the design of strategy and defense policy.
It is not easy to mediate between these officersâ€™ demands and those of outsiders, including many members of the Congress, who want to see the Defense Ministryâ€™s civilians confronting the high command on touchy issues like punishing human-rights abuse, weeding out corruption, and stopping waste and inefficiency. The most recent flare-up came in late April, when Minister Uribe was forced to resolve a debate among senior officers about whether to increase joint operations (a strong recommendation of U.S. advisors) by firing four top generals who opposed the prospect of placing Army personnel under Navy or Air Force command.
When the Congress requested that Minister Uribe report to testify about the controversial firings, he did not show up. The next step was last weekâ€™s censure hearing. If the legislators vote for censure, it is likely that Minister Uribe could be fired.
Most of the legislators who did attend last Thursdayâ€™s five-hour session were critical; critics came from both the right wing (such as Senator Jaime Canal, a retired general) and the left (including Wilson Borja, a former labor-union leader).
Many criticized the ministerâ€™s recent practice of donning a military uniform when addressing troops (Uribe, a lifelong businessman who never spent a day in military service, does not cut an imposing figure in camouflage fatigues). â€œIt is degrading and sad to see you, Mr. Minister, costumed with our camouflage,â€ said Sen. Canal, the former general. Other critics lashed out against the ministerâ€™s criticisms of Venezuelaâ€™s recent arms purchases, which go against the Colombian governmentâ€™s official position; against his failure to comply with 30 orders from the government internal-affairs body (the ProcuradurÃa) to fire security-force personnel for disciplinary reasons; and of course for the firings of the four generals in April.
These criticisms in themselves hardly seem like grounds for firing Minister Uribe. What appeared to bother his congressional critics most was perhaps harder to express clearly: a feeling that Uribe, though nominally at the top of the Defense Ministryâ€™s hierarchy, is incapable of saying â€œnoâ€ to the high command. Instead of standing up to the generals on questions of policy or budget, forcing them to swallow bitter medicine on occasion, the perception is that Uribe is too anxious to curry favor with them, and ends up acting as their advocate and defender more than as an enforcer of the civilian leadershipâ€™s priorities.
This means, of course, that the high command is very happy with Uribe in the defense ministerâ€™s position. So happy, in fact, that they took the very troubling step of accompanying Uribe to the censure debate. Flanking him like so many bodyguards were five generals whom one would normally expect, in a time of war, to have more useful ways to spend those five hours: Armed Forces Commander Gen. Carlos Alberto Ospina, Army Commander Gen. Reynaldo Castellanos, Air Force Commander Gen. Ã‰dgar LÃ©smez, Navy Commander Adm. Mauricio Soto, and Police Inspector-General Gen. Jaime Augusto Vera.
In a statement on the Defense Ministryâ€™s website, Uribe expressed his pleasure that â€œof their own will, independently and to my surprise, all of the military and police commanders were there, accompanying not only a minister but someone who has also become their friend.â€
Members of Colombiaâ€™s Congress and other observers were right to question the generalsâ€™ presence at the debate. Some accused Uribe of politicizing the armed forces by involving them in his effort to save his own job. A few brave congressmen lashed out at the officers for being present. Wilson Borja called for them to leave the chamber, as they had not been invited (they did not leave), and characterized their presence as purposefully â€œintimidating.â€ Sen. HÃ©ctor HelÃ Rojas called it â€œan undue pressure on the Congress.â€ This pressure may have worked; while most of the Congress was present at the beginning of the debate, they moved steadily toward the exits until a quorum no longer existed.
The whole episode was another blow to civilian control of the military, which â€“ though military coups have been rare â€“ has always been weak in Colombia. Humberto de la Calle, a conservative commentator for El Espectador, called the generalsâ€™ presence â€œominousâ€ in a column published last Sunday. â€œIt smells like a political pronouncement, an undue pressure, a challenge to the Congressâ€™s ability to carry out its constitutional role. â€¦ It is easy to perceive it as a simple act of political deliberation, something the Constitution prohibits the Armed Forces from doing.â€
Postscript: The lack of a quorum forced the Congress to postpone the debate for a week. They were to meet again last Thursday, June 2. Minister Uribe had indicated that he might not be able to attend that day because he was to preside over the military academyâ€™s promotion ceremony. I have been traveling since Thursday, and have had no Internet access. As a result, I am writing this without knowing what happened on June 2.