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Colombia: The Blitz is On - COHA

The Blitz is On

Part I
The Colombia Card is Being Played, with Chávez Scheduled to be Taken to the Cleaner. Meanwhile, Rice heads today to Medellin with Democratic legislators in tow, to win approval of controversial FTA with Bogotá

• A prime weapon in the U.S. inventory to reduce Chávez to size and build up Colombia’s President Uribe is a recent government-funded report produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), which claims that the South American nation, Colombia, is safely “back from the brink of crisis.” But in terms of its conceptualization and implementation, the contracted document and the campaign surrounding its publication raises serious questions. These include the conservative organization’s objectivity due to its longtime advocacy of Plan Colombia, and its vigorous support of the pending free trade pact with Bogotá.

• The CSIS Colombia project is more about being part of a well-timed public relations campaign than about bona fide research.

• The CSIS report represents an important component in the lobbying effort by Bogotá and the Bush administration to convince Capitol Hill to approve the pending Free Trade Agreement with Colombia, and is based as much on half truths and strategic omissions as it is on value-neutral research.

• If anything, it could be argued that Colombia’s prospects for modernization and stability and its credentials as a voracious foe of regional drug trafficking have at best stagnated, and at worst have suffered grave attrition, under the Uribe administration. The discarding of extradition for demobilized paramilitaries is an example of this.

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• Uribe is lionized by State Department, but is a doubly tainted figure.

• Bush administration relates a fading tale to Democrats over Colombia’s demure virtues.

Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, on her way to Medellin, Colombia today, leading a delegation of ten Democratic House members, has the mission of rewarding one of Latin America’s most hardline leaders who has had direct links to some of the country’s most prominent right-wing death squad leaders and has indirectly sanctified the possible assassination of prominent labor and human rights leaders. Even though U.S. legislators are well aware of the impunity for such crimes that exist.

In spite of multiple legislative delegation that have been ferried to Colombia and several trips of Uribe to Washington, the Congressional leadership has not been persuaded that President Uribe is not the soaring paladin of democracy as the Bush administration tires to present him.

The trip to Medellin to boast the flagging prospects of the Colombia FTA culminating months of initiatives aimed at convincing the American public and members of Congress that the FTA was a “win-win” situation. Actually, the FTA with Colombia is meant as a gesture of good will to Bogotá for being one of the relatively few South American countries which haven’t taken steps to reduce their dependency upon the U.S.

Part of the salvo of public relations initiatives meant to convince Americans to adopt the Colombian FTA and reminiscent of President Clinton’s hype over NAFTA in 1994, is a juxtaposed document produced by Washington’s Conservative research group, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Just like Washington’s evaluation of Colombia’s drug performance which always has been heavily politicized and reflected more what the White House has wanted to see than what was there to be seen, the November 2007 CSIS report titled “Back from the Brink: Evaluating Progress in Colombia, 1999-2007” was more art than meat. The Washington think tank labels Colombia’s emergence from its decades-long tainted anti-drug policy, rampant corruption and successive governance crises as “a success story.” While Uribe has, to an extent, somewhat improved bureaucratic predictability within the government regarding its internal affairs and public administration, this sometimes has been at a heavy cost. He at first restored optimism among a majority of Colombians, partially as a result of a recuperating economy. But much of this achievement has been accompanied by ongoing charges of corruption against government insiders, which almost certainly has reached up to the presidential office. His erratic behavior also tolerated a high level of violence, particularly against labor figures that are being gunned down with disturbing regularity. This phenomenon has infuriated a now informed leadership of the U.S. labor movement which has focused its anger on attempting to persuade the Democratic leadership of both Houses of the U.S. Congress against enacting a free trade agreement with Bogotá at this time. Arguably, Uribe’s relative popularity today is in part a function of the FARC’s lack of popularity, leaving the public with few viable alternatives.

President Bush insists that if the Democrat-controlled Congress does not pass a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Colombia, “it will be a destabilizing moment.” Some would argue that this claim is something of a stretch, and it is more reflective of Bush’s abjuration of any role for the Latin American left, rather than a careful calculation of the trade factors at play in the region, and the balance and legitimacy of the foreign policy goals of the area’s various actors, including the large number of left-leaning governments and other critics of Washington’s various regional policies. While the White House’s justification for seeking an FTA is in part based on national security grounds, such an explanation is of dubious merit. Rather, it is more reasonable to see Washington’s close links to Colombia as just one more outcropping of Bush’s intense personal odium for the legacy of Fidel Castro throughout Latin America. This hostility especially extends to Hugo Chávez and is reflected in the present soured relationship between Washington and Caracas.

A Most Odd Couple
Nevertheless, in spite of Washington’s persistent pressure on Bogotá throughout much of this decade to lend itself to being used as a countervailing force against Chávez, Uribe usually has tried to contain his differences with his neighbor and not permit the State Department to indiscriminately use his government as a battering ram against the Venezuelan leader. Much of the causation behind Uribe’s cautious approach has been economic—namely upwards of almost $6 billion a year in bilateral trade between the two countries, much of it of recent vintage and a good percent of it made up of non-traditional products. The terms of trade are overwhelmingly in Colombia’s favor. Until Chávez was unceremoniously sacked from the job as mediator for the release of FARC-held hostages to which Uribe previously had assigned him, the Colombian leader had repeatedly thwarted Washington’s efforts to promote his country as a gladiatorial state. He rebuffed the State Department’s efforts for him to pick up its cudgel and use it to neutralize Chávez’s hemispheric potency.

The CSIS study on the country ebulliently catalog’s Colombia as “a success story,” even at the risk of seriously distorting the country’s present realities. Its critics find that rather than a legitimate research finding, the CSIS report reflects an unseemly tactic of searching for purse seining evidence to justify its preordained conclusions. Since 1999, Colombia may have witnessed some progress as far as some economic and trade indicators are concerned, but shortcomings in its democratic operations and the absence of public rectitude at least should furnish an equal gauge to measure the government’s success, or lack of it. A good deal of yardage in those key areas has been lost under Uribe, even though some of those sectors were not even mentioned in the study.

Colombia remains perched for a genuine social crisis to severely buffer it. Countermanding that premise would best be served by a working skepticism other than the wild optimism of the CSIS report. Otherwise, a dangerous message would be sent to Colombian officials who are fully convinced that, while they may not have entirely achieved a particularly lofty ethical path or prevented corruption from infecting political transactions, Washington is not likely to go out of its way to insist that these discrepancies need be immediately addressed. In terms of orthodox academic virtues, far more traditional results are required from such outside contractors like the CSIS, and higher research standards must be set, if such research projects, like the Colombia study, deserve to have any weight.

CSIS Carries the Ball
The “Back from the Brink” Report by CSIS was financed by the United States Trade Representative (USTR), part of the Executive Office of the President. After being contacted twice by COHA, the USTR confirmed that the office at least partially financed the study by CSIS, but maintained that the actual costs of the project were not available. COHA also made comparable inquiries to USAID and CSIS, but no further information about the financing of the report was divulged. Someone in the administration repeated a rumor that the 60 page report was budgeted at $40,000 at tax payers’ expense. COHA’s researchers estimate that the report could have been done on a one thousand dollar budget, with plenty left over for pizzas, since it was apparently viewed as tantamount to being the product of a patriotic mission.

It should be noted that CSIS formerly was a unit of Georgetown University, which ultimately dissolved its ties with the institution in part because of prevailing charges at the time that CSIS and the CIA had a de facto revolving relationship in terms of recruitment and facilitated projects. The Colombian weekly news magazine, Semana, recently asked CSIS whether the federal funding of its Colombia study would somehow possibly cloud the objectivity of the analysis, but its spokesperson for that group quickly dismissed that notion, arguing that “the government’s idea was precisely to find an independent and reputable organization such as [CSIS].” The answer did somewhat beg the question: reliable for what and for whom? To produce a report aimed at buttressing what the world already knew was what the USTR wanted to see.

A USTR representative told COHA that the CSIS “Back from the Brink” report is an “independent study” despite the fact that it was funded by the government. Yet, that position has to be considered somewhat naïve, given that there was no mystery surrounding the fact that President Bush and his trade officials and State Department personnel have been consistent in aggressively calling for the enactment of a free trade arrangement with Colombia. Without doubt, getting Congress’ approval for the trade pact would represent a major political win for the White House. To achieve that, administration efforts have taken pains to conceal, or give a highly deceptive reading to, recent Latin American economic experiences with free trade deals, such as NAFTA, which at best have brought about mixed results, but never a win-win outcome. The fact that the CSIS report was funded by an arm of the Executive Office of the President raises very legitimate questions about the transparency of the project.

Meanwhile, Bogotá has been on a crusade to get the trade deal approved by the U.S. Congress, especially now that it would mark a badly needed political accomplishment for the Uribe administration as well as the Colombian president himself, whose deportment is becoming almost as raffish as that of Hugo Chávez. Uribe’s trade quest has been translated into a very impressive and complex lobbying effort by Bogotá, which has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into hiring U.S. public relations and law firms in order to ensure quick passage of the FTA, as well as to alter the blotched image of Colombia’s otherwise grim human rights situation.

Lobbying Washington
The Foreign Agents Registration Unit of the U.S. Department of Justice details a $300,000 contract between the Colombian government and Burson-Marsteller, one of the world’s larger public relations firms. Its mission is to lobby Washington opinion makers for the passage of the FTA with Colombia. Other U.S. firms which were contracted to work to advance Bogotá’s interests in the U.S. were the lobbying firm Glover Park Group ($40,000 per month) and Johnson, Madigan, Peck, Boland & Stewart (who have been paid $35,000 per month). Regarding Burson-Marsteller, this international public relations firm was a favorite Washington feed bag for some of the worst human rights violators in the Americas who visited the U.S. Capital during the 1970s and 1980s. Of all the military juntas that seized power during this period, demonstrably, the very worst was Argentina (which became one of Burson-Marsteller’s prime clients). It is estimated that the ruling military state killed upwards of 30,000 innocent civilians during its period of rule (1976 -1983). Even though Burson-Marsteller, along with its co-equal during this era (when it came to nurturing brutal hemispheric regimes) – Patton Boggs – high ethical standards were not their trademark. This was the case even after Burson was repeatedly informed of the butcheries being routinely performed by the ruling Argentine military junta against a variety of the nation’s social sectors, including liberal Catholic priests, as well as Jewish students and faculty members at major Argentine universities. Rather than acknowledge the unsavory nature of their clients, Burson scornfully rejected such claims that their clients were little better than psychopaths, and enthusiastically fulfilled the terms of their representational contract with the Argentine military authorities, with their American account supervisors accusing the firm’s critics of being “Marxist agitators.”

Lobbying in favor of the Colombian FTA has been both intensive and expensive and has spawned a bulldog effort to enthrone half truths on the part of Bogotá and U.S. authorities. The current campaign includes high officials of the U.S. State Department, as well as hired lobbying sources working to enact the FTA project, even though Colombia today demonstrably one has of the worst human rights violation records in the entire hemisphere. These providers can be counted on to supply the U.S. Congress with highly questionable ex parte, if not entirely self-serving evidence, about the situation in Colombia in order to advance the prospects that the FTA eventually will be approved. On April 24, 2007, Charles Shapiro, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere that the Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS), a major Colombian NGO, reported a decline to 38 murders in recent months. Nevertheless, what Mr. Shapiro did not bring to the attention of the U.S. legislators was that the same organization previously had reported that 72 trade union figures had been murdered in 2006, which marked an increase over the previous year.

High Rates of Political Assassinations
President Uribe has used a different custom set of tailored figures to argue that only 25 trade unionists were killed in Colombia in 2006, but Human Rights Watch (HRW) maintains that the number is considerably higher. According to HRW, “the only way to create [Uribe’s] artificially low numbers is by excluding unionized teachers from trade unionist categories. In fact, according to official Colombian statistics, if you include unionized teachers, 58 trade unionists were killed last year, a substantial increase over the 40 murdered the previous year.” It is shocking that with so many statistics coming from respectable organizations, CSIS, echoing its client’s previously cited figures, states that a “positive trend continued in 2006,” without even bothering to acknowledge HRW’s objection to this manipulation of numbers. At this point, the question can be seriously posed whether the Justice Department’s Foreign Agents Registration Unit should consider adding CSIS to its list of those prepared to do checkbook research for their clients and require it to list its name and officers with that office.

CSIS Contradictions
On November 14, 2007, a short excerpt from the CSIS was published on the editorial page of the Washington, D.C. conservative tabloid, The Examiner, titled “U.S. saved Colombia.” In this section, which abstracted a handful of sentences from the “Back from the Brink” report, CSIS informs the public that U.S. support for Colombia (through Plan Colombia) constitutes “a foreign policy success,” a finding which exactly mirrors the viewpoint of the Colombian government, but not the conclusion of what must be a sizable number of Latin American specialists who are prepared to challenge CSIS’ upbeat findings. This conclusion is even somewhat inconsistent with remarks by longtime CSIS senior staffer, Armand Peschard, who on an October 23, 2007 NPR newscast about the drug war, observed that “Plan Colombia, that was built as an antinarcotics effort, […] didn’t meet the expectations.” It is somewhat surprising that CSIS now sees Plan Colombia under a distinctly different and rosier lens.

It is also noteworthy that Phillip McLean, who is one of several co-authors of the 2007 report, stated in an earlier paper issued on April 2006 that “Colombia remains a country on the brink of crisis.” Yet since mid-2006 (right after Uribe won reelection), Colombia’s democracy has suffered from a series of visceral attacks of a president who, despite some initial constructive steps, has publicly tried to intimidate the judicial branch, verbally lacerated opposition leaders, and jeopardized the safety of human rights exponents by accusing them of being confederates of FARC insurgents.

Curiously enough, Uribe’s repeated interferences with ongoing investigations by the Supreme Court threaten the rule of law he so insistently claims to defend, just as he maintains close ties with some of the notorious officials tied to the rightist vigilante band, the AUC, which has been labeled a “terrorist” organization by the State Department. Moreover, on the eve of Colombia’s 2007 local elections, Uribe openly interfered in the electoral process, stating that Bogotános should not vote for candidates who are supported by the guerrillas—indirectly referring to Samuel Moreno from the opposition party, Polo Democrático, who has no proven connections with any guerrilla group. President Uribe’s lack of respect for his country’s democratic institutions and processes is appalling. Thus, it is shocking to see how in the passage of only two years (especially regarding stepped-up recent internecine political strife in Colombia) CSIS, in a publicly-funded project, handed out by the Bush administration, can claim that what is probably the most violent country in Latin America can be properly described as being “back from the brink.”

Freedom of the press?
Robert Dahl has argued that “democracy and its fundamental institutions presuppose the existence of certain fundamental rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press.” But Colombia is apparently falling behind its peer nations in terms of freedom of expression, as the current administration has failed to allocate sufficient resources, let alone capable leadership, to protect these basic rights. Freedom House’s 2006 Report on Colombia states that “Colombia remains the most dangerous country for journalists in continental South America, and violence and harassment of journalists by state and non-state actors are the primary impediments to a free media.”

What is more remarkable is that in 2002, (the year in which President Uribe assumed office on August 7) Freedom House, an established conservative group, which to a large degree is publicly funded, categorized Colombia’s freedom of the press as “partly-free,” but in subsequent years (2003-2006) the organization lowered its status to “not free” in order to reflect “the worsening impact of the armed conflict on journalists.” The International Press Institute’s 2006 Review on Colombia has found that “the groups involved in Colombia’s civil war single out journalists or media outlets as ‘military targets,’ using intimidation and violence to ensure they are portrayed favourably by the press.” Moreover, the Bogotá-based watchdog, Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP), registered 140 violations of press freedom in 2006. FLIP states in its 2006 press release that “this represents a 37% increase when compared to 2005 figures.” Out of these 140 records, right-wing paramilitary groups were found to be responsible for 38 cases; government forces for 21; FARC for 18; and public officials for 15.

Yet the CSIS’ “Back from the Brink” report, which is supposed to evaluate progress in Colombia, makes no mention whatsoever of the country’s aberrant de facto free press situation.

No Justice, No Peace
Uribe’s Justice and Peace Law, which sharply reduces jail time for paramilitary members who wish to demobilize after confessing and doing penance for their crimes, itself undermines the country’s democracy due to the largely cosmetic nature of its punitive demands. The fact is that criminals responsible for thousands of assassinations and massacres could be out of prison in far less than the wonted eight years. Former paramilitaries basically can now choose what crimes they wish to confess in order to reduce their jail time even further. With this state of affairs, it is far from guaranteed that the complete truth will be entirely exhibited to Colombian society, and in fact, it has rarely been. These former combatants still control important areas of the country, and undoubtedly still have access to illicit funds either as a result of ongoing drug-trafficking enterprises or by engaging in street crime syndicates. Most of all, Uribe’s demobilization plan guarantees to confessed paramilitaries that they will not be extradited to the U.S. for crimes against U.S. nationals and violators of U.S. law, which has previously been the bedrock of U.S. policy toward Colombian drug traffickers. The fact that the White House has now acquiesced as veritably a co-conspirator in liquidating to what had been the main dish in its anti-drug strategy, is an indication of the disarray in which U.S. drug policy now finds itself.

Former high-level ex-paramilitaries will not only have the means to potentially buy elections in Colombia, but also they will be among those who are likely to reap many of the benefits of an eventual free trade agreement with the U.S. former Colombian Minister of Defense. Rafael Pardo shockingly reveals in his recent book Fin del Paramilitarismo, that, out of the 32,000 demobilized paramilitaries, 29,000 have been pardoned or have had their charges otherwise dropped. Only 270 out of 2,695 ex-combatants thought to be responsible for major human rights violations are in prison, while the whereabouts of the rest are unknown. In other words, Uribe’s “Justice and Peace” program couldn’t be closer to being described as a fraud. For the tens of thousands of innocent citizens who have been brutally murdered by AUC paramilitaries—classified a “terrorist” organization even under this administration’s lax standards—less than 300 of those who have perpetrated crimes have been visited by any form of punishment, and most of these are likely to be pardoned by Uribe or his successor at some near future date.

Uribe’s law also fails to prioritize fair treatment of the paramilitaries’ victims in the ongoing Colombia conflict, in fact, trivializing their plight. In July 2007, victims of the internal conflict were scheduled to testify before the Colombian Congress. But only 5 out of 35 members of Uribe’s two major parties (the “U” Party and Radical Change) found the requisite time to remain in the legitimate chambers to hear the testimonies of the victims. In contrast, nearly all of the senators from the opposition parties managed to fill their seats. Neither the Uribe majorities, nor the President himself, have accorded the victims anything near the minimal respect that common decency would seem to require. There is no prospect whatsoever that the Justice and Peace Law, ardently pushed forward by Uribe and his legislative majorities, will bring about even a semblance of justice or peace for Colombia, and is only a crude caricature of reality.

What remains on “the brink of crisis” is Colombia’s democracy. Plan Colombia could have possibly produced something like a “foreign policy success” if the U.S.’ mission in that country was sincerely aimed at helping to restructure the country’s institutions. In particular by strengthening a judiciary that supposedly has to deal with making amends to war victims and hunting down the perpetrators of repugnant human rights violations, and which Uribe insists will be housed in his pocket. Moreover, policymakers need to be aware of the unique characteristics of the country’s internal war and how a free trade agreement could accentuate it. Paramilitary forces hardly have been brought to justice in any respectable numbers and continue to exercise plenary influence within the country, especially in places far from Bogotá, as well as with their seedy ties to unscrupulous members of Uribe’s legislative coalitions.

Regarding agricultural issues, Colombian farmers could be easily outperformed by competing U.S. products, potentially providing leeway for even more of the country’s farmers to make the fateful decision to move from growing conventional crops into the far more lucrative coca cultivation business. What is more, Congressional Democrats should be reminded that the Colombian trade union movement, whose three major confederations represent nearly all of the country’s unionized workers, have vigorously rejected the FTA, because the one predictable beneficiary of it will be U.S-subsidized multinational agro-industries.

“Applauding CSIS’ Good Work”
The pending vote on a FTA with Colombia involves more than a trade deal. Bush and Uribe’s efforts to push the measure through the U.S. Congress are calculatedly based on misinformation, some of which has been financed by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Because of the importance of the CSIS report as one factor in achieving its sought after victory on the Colombia Free Trade measure, the Bush administration’s Trade office was certainly not interested in having to speculate whether the CSIS paper would hopefully come in with a pro-FTA finding— it simply waited for a sure thing to come through. Peter DeShazo, the most senior member of the team and the head of CSIS’ Americas’ section, had come to CSIS several years before, leaving his position as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs, where he helped formulate the policy he was now being called upon to evaluate—that is, to assess a policy whose critics were saying was based on distorted information. Essentially what came forth was a para-propaganda piece that ended up softening Colombia’s record of violence and which brushed aside instances of malfeasance in office, which make up much of that country’s contemporary history under the Uribe government.

Colombia’s commerce minister, Luis Guillermo Plata, who attended CSIS’ presentation of its “Back from the Brink” report, enthused that he would use the CSIS document as a tool to convince the U.S. Congress to approve the FTA with Colombia. The Democratic majority in the U.S. congress has been closely scrutinizing the details of the agreement and they haven’t been inspired by what they have been seeing so far. In contrast to credible research groups who value their independence and wouldn’t, as was the case with the CSIS, accept U.S. government funds to research a project where the narrow interests of only one sector of the U.S. national security community was being well served, was not likely to produce a compendium of objective quasi-scientific data on the subject. With this report, the CSIS has placed itself in a position where its bona fide on the subject of Colombia have been significantly compromised, deservedly so.

Part II
COHA will shortly publish the concluding portion of its assessment of CSIS’ recent paper presenting an optimistic assessment of Colombia under the Uribe administration.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Staff
January 24th, 2008


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