Uribe's Reality Check

(International Relations and Security Network, 04/05/2007)


The long, cozy relationship between Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and the US Congress is over. Washington has spent billions on the Plan Colombia policy to combat terror, increase security and economic development, and stymie the drug trade with little to show for it. Ongoing investigations into links between Colombian leaders and former paramilitary commanders have revealed close ties. For the Democratic leaders in Congress this has become hard to ignore, especially when discussing a possible free trade agreement (FTA) or continuing the financing of Plan Colombia.


Uribe traveled to Washington on 1 May to present his case. His argument: Colombia needs the plan and an FTA to assure continued success in the fight against terror and the drug trade. His challenge: to convince skeptics in the Democratic Party that his government is rigorous with the investigation of past human rights abuses at the hands of paramilitaries.


By 3 May it was clear that neither Congressional leader Nancy Pelosi, nor her Senate counterpart, Harry Reid, were convinced that what Colombia needs now is more money and an FTA.


The predicted debate in Congress over US aid to Colombia is important as it will bring to the surface many truths about the country that Washington has chosen to ignore. But the debate, and the resulting vote to solidify an FTA with Colombia, should not hang solely on the US' view.


Beyond perceptions of human rights atrocities and the killings of union leaders, the reality is that paramilitary forces for many years have been the law of the land in rural areas where the Colombian state had little to no presence. Before Plan Colombia took flight, the 1990s was a decade when paramilitarism was seen as a viable solution to confront the spread of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.


The shady nature of the relationship between Colombian leaders and paramilitary commanders allowed the latter to operate beyond the law with impunity. Such latitude, combined with profits from selling cocaine to the US market, allowed the paramilitaries to quickly grow beyond the control of their rural landowner masters. And one of them, it seems, might have been Alvaro Uribe himself.

Yet through his connections, Uribe sparked a process of disarmament that has led Colombia down a path that, among other unintended destinations, has taken Colombia into a phase of truth telling whereby Colombian leaders from the military, Congress and the president's office, have been forced to reckon with their past.


While the so-called para-politico scandal continues and Uribe has managed to avoid direct scrutiny in Bogota, leaders in Washington don't want to be seen as having supported the Colombian president when the scope of his past involvement with the paramilitaries is in question, despite the argument that such ties were necessary.


Sensing a climate change, Uribe hired a lobbying firm with known close ties to Democrats, The Glover Park Group, at US$40,000 a month to help improve his image in Congress.


His first stop in Washington was the White House, where US President George W Bush showed open-ended support for Uribe's US$700 million request for Plan Colombia.


"It is very important for this nation to stand with democracies that protect human rights and human dignity, democracies based up the rule of law," Bush said.


Uribe's next meeting took him to the offices of Senator Patrick Leahy, who chairs the subcommittee that oversees congressional spending on Plan Colombia. In April, the subcommittee froze US$55.2 million in military aid to Colombia, citing accusations that paramilitary groups had infiltrated the Colombian government and military.


Leahy and Uribe likely discussed this as well as the fallout after the mid-April speech Colombian Senator Gustavo Petro gave his country's Congress during which he presented a list of some 2,000 names of individuals closely tied to paramilitaries. One of those names was Santiago Uribe, the president's brother.


"We do not want our aid to go to anyone with links to paramilitaries," Leahy said before beginning his meeting with Uribe.


The Colombian president's next major meeting, held with Pelosi and a number of Democratic leaders, was yet another reminder that Uribe will face an uphill battle to secure funding and a FTA from the current Congress.


Entering the meeting, Pelosi told Colombian daily El Tiempo, “The problem is that we have serious questions about Colombia and we hope to resolve them with President Uribe.” During the meeting, Pelosi offered little acquiescence to Uribe’s arguments, the need for more funding and hopes for a FTA. Speaking for the US House of Representatives, Pelosi told Uribe, “Many of us want to express our growing concern with the serious accusations of links between paramilitary groups and high-level Colombian authorities,” adding, “It is essential that the Colombian government investigate and condone those authorities, including those of a high level.”


After the meeting, members of Uribe’s team noted that the encounter was “cordial but difficult,” according to El Tiempo.


Gone are the days when the US Congress would rubber stamp aid packages to Colombia. Uribe's visit to Washington provided a check on the new realities of this old relationship. Uribe must now prove beyond any doubt that his government is doing everything it can to root out any and all connections between Colombian political leaders and paramilitaries. The risk, however, is that rigorous investigation may lead to his own political downfall.

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