Current Events

The following article is from the Boston Globe, and provides an accessible summary of recent events in the “parapolitics” of Colombia as a way of underscoring the implications of US ties:

Colombia political scandal imperiling US ties
Congressional support for ally eroding

By Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, Globe Staff | February 25, 2007

BOGOTÁ — Just two weeks ahead of a high-profile visit by President Bush to Latin America, the United States’ key partner on the continent is engulfed in an extraordinary scandal that threatens to undermine the credibility of US alliances and policy priorities from Mexico to Argentina.

The widening probe linking dozens of political allies of Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe, to the country’s right-wing death squads and drug traffickers has started to erode support on Capitol Hill for Colombia, the biggest recipient of US aid outside the Middle East and Afghanistan.

The United States has spent $4.7 billion since 2000 fighting drugs and the insurgency in Colombia. In a show of support for his center-right ally, President Bush is scheduled next month to be the first US president since John F. Kennedy to visit the Colombian capital of Bogotá.

But after a week that saw the ouster of Uribe’s foreign minister over her family’s ties to paramilitary militias and the arrest of his hand picked former secret police chief for murder, the next casualty of the scandal could be America’s reputation. The region feels forgotten by and estranged from Washington, D.C., since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and a string of victories by leftist presidents.

Bush is not expected to offer significant new aid or trade in his March 8-14 tour, his nemesis Hugo Chávez of oil-rich Venezuela is traversing the continent with an open checkbook.

“Who have we staked all of our political capital on in Latin America? Uribe,” said Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy, a think tank in Washington. “If this scandal engulfs him or his armed forces, it will be a devastating blow to the whole design of US policy.”

The “para-political” scandal burst open last fall, when a computer seized from paramilitary leader “Jorge 40” revealed the names of dozens of politicians who supposedly collaborated with paramilitaries in intimidating voters, seizing land, and kidnapping or killing labor unionists and political rivals. Other revelations followed, including secret documents signed by officials pledging moral support or kickbacks to the illegal militias.

The paramilitaries formed in the 1980s to combat leftist guerrillas who have terrorized the population for more than 40 years. But the militias, like their leftist rivals, were soon implicated in massacres, kidnapping, and drug trafficking to the United States. The paramilitary umbrella group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, is classified as a terrorist organization by Washington, and many of its leaders are wanted for extradition on drug charges.

In a peace process started by Uribe, about 31,000 alleged paramilitary fighters had put down their weapons and agreed to confess to crimes in exchange for lighter penalties, making way for investigations into links to powerful elites.

Eight pro-Uribe congressmen have been arrested for collaborating with paramilitaries, and dozens of national and regional politicians, some who have apparently fled the country, are under investigation. Pro-Uribe legislators, as well as the opposition, have called for special elections to “cleanse” Congress, to erase suspicions that many may have won because of support from paramilitaries. A decorated colonel has been relieved of his post, and other former military officials are also under investigation.

On Monday, Uribe’s foreign minister, María Consuelo Araújo, resigned after the Supreme Court arrested her brother, an Uribe-allied senator, for involvement in the kidnapping of a political rival. Her father, a former governor, another brother, and a cousin are also under investigation.

On Thursday came the worst blow. Jorge Noguera, who served as Uribe’s campaign manager and later as head of Colombia’s secret police, was arrested by the attorney general. Noguera is accused of giving a hit list of trade unionists and activists to paramilitaries, who then killed them. Another former secret police official is serving an 18- year sentence for purging police records of paramilitaries and drug traffickers.

Already, the scandal has had a ripple effect on Capitol Hill, where questions are being raised about requests for an additional $4 billion in antinarcotics aid and a free-trade pact is up for approval.

“American taxpayers deserve assurances that the Colombian government has severed links to these terrorist groups,” said Senator Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees US foreign-assistance programs. “[This] scandal only reinforces the need to reassess who we are dealing with, whether adequate corrective steps are being taken, and what we are getting for our money.”

For the Bush administration, Uribe has been a staunch and rare supporter in a region increasingly dominated by leftist or anti-US leaders. But with Colombia’s Congress opening hearings next month into paramilitary power in Uribe’s home state, including accusations against Uribe’s brother, the scandal threatens to swallow up the president himself.

Uribe’s defenders at home and in Washington are standing firm, countering that it is his success in persuading paramilitaries to disarm and confess that has shed light on the links to illegal militias. A recent Gallup Colombia poll gave Uribe a 73 percent approval rating.

“The US applauds the Colombian government for its determination to investigate, and where appropriate, prosecute all charges of ties to paramilitary organizations and other illegal armed groups,” Eric Watnik, a State Department spokesman, said in a telephone interview from Washington.

But with Bush set to visit Bogotá, US policy to Colombia will be under the microscope. In addition to Democrats in Congress, some of Colombia’s neighbors may question why Washington sticks by an administration in the midst of a humiliating crisis.

US Representative William D. Delahunt, a Massachusetts Democrat active in Latin American affairs, said evidence of the right-of-center government’s links to death squads “evokes memories of the 1980s in Central America. I think you’re going to see hearings on these issues.” Aside from the problems in Colombia, Delahunt contended that “what we have is a Latin America policy that is an afterthought.”

Maria McFarland, a Colombia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said Bush has “stood by Uribe unconditionally,” despite long standing allegations of his armed forces collaborating with death squads. With proof now emerging, McFarland said, US policy appears hypocritical.

“They are prepared to criticize very harshly leaders they disagree with, but when their allies do something, they turn a blind eye,” she said. If the United States continues “to support so strongly a government mired in corruption and links to terrorists and drug lords,” it will fuel resentment from other Latin American countries that have been ignored, she said.

Having put so much faith in Uribe, Bush is expected to broaden his agenda during a trip that will also take him to Brazil, Uruguay, Guatemala, and Mexico.

“We’ll see a real emphasis on Mexico and Brazil, on ethanol and biofuel — an attempt to elevate other regional players,” predicted Dan Restrepo of the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington. “Part of the silver lining in all this could be a wake-up call to pursue all of our interests in Latin America.”

But Leonardo Carvajal , a professor of foreign affairs at the Universidad Externado de Colombia in Bogotá, dismissed such comments as failing to take into account the strategic realpolitik of the region.

“Colombia is the beachhead of US interests in Latin America. . . . It doesn’t matter what scandal happens,” Carvajal said. “Everyone knows that the counterbalance to Chávez is Uribe and that Colombia is the bastion of US interests in Latin America.”

About Sarah

I serve with Presbyterian World Mission as liaison to the Andean region. This blog is a place to share stories, experiences, and observations, both my own and those of friends and colleagues and the occasional item of news.
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