Colombiaâ€™s Congress held its final debate Tuesday over the so-called â€œJustice and Peaceâ€ law to guide paramilitary demobilizations, a scandalously weak piece of legislation that ended up giving the AUC leadership most of what it wanted.
After it was over and the law passed, to universal condemnation from human-rights defenders, I actually found myself feeling sorry for Gina Parody.
Thatâ€™s not easy. Ms. Parody, a vociferously pro-Uribe congresswoman from BogotÃ¡, normally doesnâ€™t inspire pity. A well-connected lawyer known for her elegant dress (donâ€™t miss the glamour shots on her website), she was only twenty-eight when elected to the Congress in March 2002 as the second-highest vote-getter from BogotÃ¡. A staunch supporter of President Uribeâ€™s security initiatives, his failed 2003 reform referendum, and his efforts to get re-elected, Rep. Parody is the quintessential upper-class uribista.
With one major exception. She has strongly opposed the Uribe governmentâ€™s disappointing insistence on giving paramilitary groups a lenient treatment at the negotiating table.
When President Uribe and his high commissioner for peace, Luis Carlos Restrepo, launched their negotiations with right-wing paramilitary groups two and a half years ago, they had to present legislation to Colombiaâ€™s Congress to determine what would happen to the groupsâ€™ members after they turn in their weapons. This forced the Congress to consider the difficult question of what to do with paramilitary leaders who stand accused of ordering mass murder and sending large quantities of drugs overseas, and who probably expect to keep most of their wealth, power, and criminal organizations intact.
Legislation that Restrepo introduced in August 2003 and April 2004 was roundly condemned for seeking to grant a virtual amnesty for crimes against humanity, while failing to provide the legal tools necessary to investigate crimes, to seize and redistribute stolen assets, to pay reparations, to guarantee the right to the truth, and to dismantle paramilitary networks.
Most of the Uribe supporters who control Colombiaâ€™s Congress nonetheless got behind the governmentâ€™s weak proposals almost immediately. Gina Parody, however, was among a small but influential group of legislators who dissented, even if it meant defying the popular president.
Along with normally pro-Uribe legislators Sen. Rafael Pardo, Sen. AndrÃ©s GonzÃ¡lez, and a few others, plus members of left-of-center parties, Parody was part of a coalition that drew up an alternative piece of legislation. Their bill would have done much more to investigate abuses, confiscate illegally obtained wealth, and take apart the command and support networks likely to remain in place even after negotiations conclude. As the alternative proposal with the best chance of passage, by early 2005 the Pardo-Parody et.al. bill had at least the tacit support of most human rights NGOs and many donor governments.
Parody has said she even believed that President Uribe supported the bill, and blames Luis Carlos Restrepo â€“ who as â€œhigh commissioner for peaceâ€ is the Uribe governmentâ€™s chief peace negotiator â€“ for steering the governmentâ€™s position toward conciliation of the AUC leadership. Restrepo rejected such charges as â€œattempts to tarnish the image of the commissioner.â€
As the Pardo-Parody bill began to draw attention and support, Restrepo appeared to become obsessed with Parody and the billâ€™s other supporters, the main opponents of his effort to secure a peace agreement at any cost. A psychiatrist who once authored a pop-psych book called The Right to Tenderness, the peace negotiatorâ€™s recent behavior toward his critics has been neither peaceful nor tender.
In fact Restrepo, whose job is certainly stressful, has appeared at times to be coming unhinged â€“ or, as El Tiempoâ€™s editorial Thursday put it, â€œHe sometimes resembles a psychiatrist in need of urgent help from a colleague.â€
He has repeatedly badmouthed opponents â€“ especially Pardo and Parody â€“ in on-the-record interviews with the media, responding to conceptual arguments with personal attacks, accusations of disloyalty to president Uribe, even â€œtreason.â€
In February, after President Uribe sought to assuage donor nations by presenting a draft bill resembling the Pardo-Parody legislation, Restrepo submitted his resignation, citing â€œa political ambush against the government.â€ The resignation gambit worked, as Restrepo was steadily able to build a larger coalition of pro-Uribe legislators behind his weaker proposals.
In April, Restrepo told an interviewer that Sen. Pardo and Rep. Parody could no longer be considered Uribeâ€™s supporters, even though the two have supported most of the presidentâ€™s other initiatives. â€œIf he thinks he can kick me out of the uribista bloc, it wonâ€™t be easy for him,â€ responded Parody at the time.
(Restrepo, meanwhile, is also the author of the highly controversial set of guidelines sent to international-community representatives in Colombia, discussed in our last posting.)
Restrepoâ€™s hard line against those who oppose his legislative proposals contrasts sharply with his soft treatment of the paramilitary leadership. Not only has the peace commissioner sought a law that treats the right-wing warlords gently, recordings leaked last September reveal that he had assured them that extradition to the United States would be unlikely, and that he had endeavored to play down reports of cease-fire violations.
Ultimately, Restrepoâ€™s proposed legislation â€“ which was only slightly tougher than his failed 2003 and 2004 bills â€“ won in the Congress, as he was able to line up enough votes to eliminate nearly all of the Pardo-Parody proposals. The high commissionerâ€™s victory was not overwhelming, however: all votes were reasonably close, indicating that there is not a broad consensus behind the legislation that passed this week.
This brings us to Tuesday night, when Restrepo was present in the Congress to defend and promote the â€œJustice and Peaceâ€ law during its final debate. After Rep. Gustavo Petro (a former M-19 guerrilla who in fact edged out Parody to be BogotÃ¡â€™s number-one vote-getter in 2002) accused President Uribe of seeking to protect a brother with alleged paramilitary ties, Parody rose to defend the President.
She then changed the subject, however, and began to explain her opposition to Restrepoâ€™s bill. Parody began to list some of her reservations about the weak law nearing passage.
She never got to finish. Restrepo accused her of seeking â€œto tarnish the Peace Commissioner, fabricating hoaxes together with those in the opposition.â€ Legislators from the pro-Uribe bloc, egged on by Restrepo, began banging on their desks, whistling and shouting â€œget out,â€ among other, less-polite epithets. Pro-Uribe representative Armando Benedetti, together with several representatives who openly support the AUC (RocÃo Arias, Eleonora Pineda, Jorge Luis Caballero) led the catcalls.
Parody was forced to abandon the lectern and leave the chamber. Members of leftist parties and the Liberal Party opposition left with her. The eighty-eight representatives who remained â€“ barely enough for a quorum â€“ then quickly voted and approved the bill.
The next day, El Tiempo published a photo of a flustered Parody back in her office moments after her retreat, staring blankly with a glass of water at her side. According to Inter-Press Service, she told reporters outside the chamber that the AUCâ€™s friends in the Congress were not just the 35 percent whom the paramilitaries have claimed are under their control, but as many as 70 percent.
What an ugly spectacle: a herd of dominant-faction politicians, most of them old men, shouting down a thirty-one-year-old female colleague trying to defend a principled position. It is in even poorer taste when the herd is doing its bullying in support of a lenient deal for the AUC. If this is a taste of what is in store for the country as the negotiations approach conclusion and the 2006 elections draw near, Colombian democracy is about to enter a very dark period.
â€œI worry that if they kicked us out of the Congress chamber the way they did, what will happen to the candidates who oppose the â€˜parasâ€™ in many parts of the country?â€ Parody said on Wednesday. She has a good point.
At these moments, itâ€™s always worth asking where the Bush administration stands. Is the U.S. government backing Parody and her colleaguesâ€™ honorable dissent, or has it cast its lot with her attackers, the raucous and ill-mannered defenders of Dr. Restrepoâ€™s toothless law?
For the depressing answer, look no further than Thursdayâ€™s New York Times, in which Juan Forero reminds us, â€œThe Bush administration and its representative in Colombia, Ambassador William Wood, have strongly supported the law and Uribe.â€
Luckily, this doesnâ€™t apply to the whole U.S. government. Skepticism remains high in the U.S. Congress, making it unlikely, at least for now, that significant U.S. funds will go to this deeply flawed process.
We can expect the passage of Dr. Restrepoâ€™s law to increase that skepticism here in Washington. And so will Tuesdayâ€™s unseemly attempt to humiliate those who dared oppose it.