Washington Finally Sees Uribe's True Colors
by Garry Leech
September 30, 2003
Finally, some Washington lawmakers have removed the blinders they have so eagerly worn during the past year while analyzing Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe. Last week 56 members of Congress sent a letter to the Colombian president stating their concerns about his plan to let right-wing paramilitaries escape justice by paying fines instead of going to prison. There were even reports that State Department officials wanted to put a little distance between the Bush administration and the now tarnished Uribe. As a result of his amnesty plan and his recent verbal assault against non-governmental organizations (NGOs), some Washington lawmakers have begun to question their support for Latin America's golden boy and the Western Hemisphere's most outspoken supporter of the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq. Meanwhile, critics of Uribe have been trying to focus attention on Uribe's authoritarian right-wing record since before his election victory last year, but Washington repeatedly turned a deaf ear.
Because Uribe won the Colombian presidency in the first round of voting with 53 percent of the vote, most politicians in Washington were willing to turn a blind eye to the tactics he utilized to fulfill his campaign promise to get tough on the country's leftist guerrillas. Washington looked the other way while Uribe spent the past twelve months involving the civilian population in the conflict by implementing a civilian informer network and drafting rural residents into his newly-created peasant army. Civilian informers became military targets in the eyes of the guerrillas because the rebels were the principal targets of the program. After all, the Colombian military already knew who and where their paramilitary allies were. Uribe drafted rural residents as peasant soldiers who would serve in their own villages where they would live at home instead of in military barracks. The mission of the peasant soldier was to use his family and friends as informers to learn about rebel activities in the region. Naturally, it wasn't long before guerrillas began targeting the families and friends of peasant soldiers.
Uribe also introduced programs that seriously undermined what little democracy exists in Colombia. Soon after assuming office, he implemented Rehabilitation and Consolidation Zones in two northern regions of the country that endowed military commanders with authority that superseded elected officials. Fortunately for Colombians living in the zones, the Constitutional Court ruled that many of the security measures that had been implemented by the military were unconstitutional, including the rounding up of some 1,000 people in the town of Saravena in Arauca department. The suspected subversives were detained in the local sports stadium where they were interrogated. The court also ruled that a census conducted by the army and police was unconstitutional, but it was too late for the people of Saravena as the authorities had already photographed and fingerprinted everyone in the town.
Despite the court's ruling against Uribe's authoritarian policies, the Colombian military continued to carry out mass round ups of alleged "subversives." On August 21, soldiers from the Colombian Army's 18th Brigade in Saravena—which was at the time receiving counterinsurgency training from U.S. Special Forces troops based in Saravena—raided homes and arrested 42 trade unionists, social activists and human rights defenders. On August 24, three days after the Saravena round up, some 600 soldiers and police raided homes in Cajamarca in central Colombia and arrested 56 people, even though they only had 34 arrest warrants. Among those detained were an elderly paraplegic and the local priest. The round-ups in Saravena and Cajamarca were just the latest incidents in the Uribe administration's ongoing offensive against social groups. According to the Colombian human rights group, the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers' Collective, most of those detained during the first eight months of Uribe's presidency were arrested "for their social activity, or simply for living in areas that authorities consider 'suspect'."
It was clearly a policy of the Uribe administration to accuse anyone critical of the president's security and neoliberal economic polices of being a subversive. The government treated all those whose political ideology coincided with that of the guerrillas as though they were armed insurgents. This has been illustrated in the crisis faced by Colombia's trade unionists who, like the guerrillas, are critical of the neoliberal economic agenda being implemented in Colombia. However, unlike the rebels, unionists have not taken up arms against the state, they have not planted bombs or assassinated people, they are attempting to promote political, social and economic reforms peacefully. In essence, South America's "oldest democracy" is persecuting people solely for expressing their political opinions.
Two weeks after the mass arrests, Uribe launched a verbal attack against human rights groups in which he accused them of being terrorists during a nationally broadcast speech at a military ceremony in Bogotá. The accusations appeared to be in response to a 172-page report issued earlier that day by 80 NGOs criticizing the president's security policies and claiming that the human rights situation had worsened under Uribe because the government "aims for social control and to implant terror in the population."
During his speech, in what was clearly a reference to the 80 organizations that issued the report, Uribe claimed there was a group of NGOs that were "politicking at the service of terrorism." He went on to say that they "cowardly shield themselves behind the human rights banner to try to give back to terrorism the space that public forces and citizens have wrested from them." The president then directly linked human rights groups to the guerrillas when he stated: "Every time a security policy is carried out in Colombia to defeat terrorism, when terrorists start feeling weak, they immediately send their spokesmen to talk about human rights." The Uribe administration then announced that it would begin investigating the activities of NGOs.
Uribe's accusations—in which he adeptly used the word 'terrorists' instead of 'guerrillas'—not only illustrated his attitude towards human rights, they also endangered the lives of human rights workers. Right-wing paramilitaries who also view human rights defenders as guerrilla sympathizers, could easily have perceived Uribe's message to be a green light for targeting NGO workers. The symmetry between Uribe and the paramilitaries' attitudes towards NGOs was clearly evident in comments made by a paramilitary commander in Putumayo, "It is not a secret that the NGOs are managed by guerrillas. NGOs are giving money to certain people so they'll make claims against army generals… The NGOs are managed by the subversives."
International NGOs, the European Union and the United Naitons harshly criticized Uribe's verbal assault, but there was silence in Washington. The Bush administration failed to comment on Uribe's undermining of civil society groups that are essential in any functioning democracy. But Uribe's tirade against NGOs tarnished his golden boy image. People in the international community who had previously supported the Colombian president were finally getting a glimpse of the real Uribe that critics had been talking about for the last two years.
Over the past year, despite the authoritarian nature of Uribe's security policies and his violations of human rights, Washington has blindly supported its Latin American ally. But Uribe's plan to offer amnesty to paramilitaries on the U.S. State Department's foreign terrorist list who are responsible for the majority of Colombia's human rights atrocities, especially civilian massacres, finally opened the eyes of some Washington lawmakers. The Colombian president initiated peace talks with the paramilitaries that called for complete demobilization of the group's 12,000 fighters by 2005, with the disarming process beginning by the end of this year. Uribe called the peace talks agreement a "step toward peace and the restoration of human rights."
The amnesty process began immediately when the government's peace commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo announced, ''For those who have committed crimes against humanity, we are looking for punishment that is not jail, where they can make amends for the damage they've done.'' Clearly, this impunity process, which called for human rights violators to pay reparations to victims' families, turn over land to the government or perform community service instead of going to prison, was intended to pave the way for paramilitary leaders Carlos Castaño and Salvatore Mancuso to become legitimate political figures. Castaño warned that negotiations would be seriously jeopardized without an amnesty for his fighters. Colombia's attorney general still has 26 outstanding warrants for Castaño's arrest on charges of ordering massacres and other crimes against humanity.
A handful of Washington lawmakers finally began recognizing Uribe's sympathy for Colombia's right-wing paramilitaries, despite the fact that critics had repeatedly pointed out his past connections to the militias. In contrast, the Bush administration has given its full blessing to Uribe's peace process, even promising to provide $3 million in funding this year for the initial phase of demobilization. Let us hope that the letter sent to Uribe by the 56 U.S. lawmakers is the first step in a process that reins in both the Bush and Uribe administrations and helps bring some long-awaited justice to Colombia.
Garry M. Leech is author of Killing Peace: Colombia's Conflict and the Failure of U.S. Intervention (INOTA, 2002), and is on the Board of Directors of the Information Network of the Americas (INOTA) in New York. This article first appeared in Colombia Journal. Please visit their website and consider supporting their vitally important work: http://www.colombiajournal.org