in the United States, nearly all the members of Congress, NGOs
and journalists who normally pay attention to Colombia are distracted
by the presidential campaign and the never-ending flow of bad
news from Iraq.
is bad news for Colombia's president, Álvaro Uribe. When
Washington is distracted, events that can hurt his image are
some of the only Colombia news items that anyone will notice.
Indeed, during the last week of July, we received two pieces
of news that are indeed hurting the hard-line, pro-U.S. president's
Tuesday July 27, Colombia's vice-president, Francisco Santos,
responded poorly to a letter that 23 Democratic senators, including
John Kerry and John Edwards, had sent to President Uribe. The
letter merely asked Uribe to do more to comply with a list of
human rights recommendations,
based on Colombia's existing commitments under international
law, set forth by the Bogotá office of the UN High Commissioner
for Human Rights.
President Santos could have taken advantage of this opportunity
to dialogue with an important sector of the U.S. Congress, assuring
them that his government is working diligently to improve its
performance. But he did not do that: instead, he decided to
accuse the senators of "shielding themselves behind the
left wing of the Democratic party, whose support they need for
the election campaign."
U.S. Senators noticed last January, when Santos attacked European
Union Commissioner Chris Patten, accusing him of treating Colombia
like a "banana republic" for having spoken of the
government's continued human rights shortcomings. Only a few
senators noticed in September, February, May and June, when
Uribe accused non-governmental human rights groups of supporting
terrorists. But the twenty-three senators, who have significant
influence over aid to Colombia, will certainly notice that the
vice president of Colombia just responded to their human rights
concerns by accusing them of playing politics.
more damage was done on Wednesday the 28th, however, when three
leaders of Colombia's murderous paramilitary groups - Salvatore
Mancuso of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, Iván
Roberto Duque of the Central Bolívar Bloc, and Ramón
Isaza of the Magdalena Medio Self-Defense Forces - boarded a
Colombian Air Force plane to give a special address to the Congress
in Bogotá. Their appearance, which supporters insisted
was intended to give a boost to flagging demobilization talks
between Uribe and the well-armed, drug-financed pro-government
forces, was roundly condemned.
here in Washington - from left to right - paralleled the comments
of U.S. Ambassador William Wood, who called the paramilitary
spectacle a "scandal." For Democrats concerned about
human rights, it was a scandal to see these men, accused of
numerous crimes against humanity, receiving such a deferential
and honorable treatment in the seat of Colombian lawmaking.
For Republican drug-war hawks, it was a scandal to see narco-traffickers
- including Mancuso, who the U.S. Justice Department seeks to
extradite for sending at least 17 tons of cocaine to our shores
- getting a high-profile opportunity to argue for their own
predecessor, Andrés Pastrana, faced criticism in Washington
during his failed 1998-2002 attempt to negotiate peace with
the FARC guerrillas. He came under fire, mostly from Republicans,
for having loaned the FARC a demilitarized zone in which to
hold talks, and for giving the guerrillas a chance to "legitimize"
themselves politically without having first demonstrated a firm
will to seek peace. But FARC leaders never spoke in Colombia's
Congress; that would have been unthinkable. Nobody ever judged
those talks to have reached such an advanced state. But there
the paramilitaries were, even though their own talks with the
Uribe government have achieved very little.
Iraq experience has reminded many in the United States that
there is much we don't understand about the countries in which
we've intervened. In these countries, wiser diplomats recognize
that there is always a lot going on under the table, behind
their backs, which - though they might not see it - can strongly
impact the outcomes of the decisions they make. The appearance
of paramilitary leaders in Colombia's Congress greatly strengthened
that sense, that feeling that there is "another story"
behind the story.
Uribe's election in 2002, decisionmakers here in Washington
have heard accusations - many of them from the Colombian left
- that Uribe and his landowning friends in the paramilitary-heavy
northern Colombian provinces of Antioquia and Córdoba
are in league with, or at least tolerant of, the paramilitaries.
They have heard accusations that the ongoing negotiations with
paramilitary groups are nothing more than a "conversation
between friends" to make arrangements for their impunity.
the majority of Colombia-watchers in Washington don't believe
this, the "show" in Congress on July 28 did nothing
to reassure them. Here in Washington, we may be distracted,
but we're increasingly worried.