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Op-Ed

Uribe's Colombia and U.S. Money

Uribe's "popularity" is the result of the thousands of dollars he spends in media promotion.

It seems that Alvaro Uribe, Colombia's president, will never run out of tricks to assure billions of American dollars without solving Colombia's chronic troubles. Recently, he was praising the Iraq war and his best friend, Mr. George Bush. Now, when Mr. Bush's star is fading, Uribe throws an award to Bill Clinton and a pat on the back to the Democrats.

Uribe's latest overture will doubtless allow his propaganda team to plant another adulatory editorial in the Washington Post or an article in the National Review, but in reality his overture to Clinton and the Democrats is as insincere as any of his previous tricks: the Colombia Plan, Patriot Plan, FTA, and whatever else he has been able to conjure up to keep the patronage flowing from his favorite welfare state, the United States.

Mr. Bush and the neocons bought Uribe's promise to lead the charge against Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and strengthen American influence in South America. Not for the first time, the neocons were dead wrong. With the same inability to understand internal politics that led the U.S. into a catastrophic civil war in Iraq, the neocon strategists ignored the reality of what is going on in Colombia today — and what is likely to go on in the coming years.

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Uribe, who famously fought against the extradition of his crony, drug lord Pablo Escobar, has sponsored legislation in Colombia to limit the sentences of confessed paramilitary narco-terrorists to a maximum of five to eight years. This means that, thanks to Uribe (and considering time served) some unreconstructed death squad killers will be out in 22 months, free to re-enter Colombian society, enjoy their piled-up wealth, join the FTA and become political leaders! This virtually insures that the U.S. flag-bearer in Latin America will be a country rife with entrenched corruption, terrorism, guerrilla warfare and booming narco-politics.

Uribe, of course, has a fictional version of Colombia's current situation that he hopes to turn into his best seller. He piously declares that he had nothing to do with, the narco-terrorist paramilitaries. He goes further to claim that Colombia was a disaster in 2002 and that he put it back on its feet. Uribe blames terrorism for the downward spiral of events in the country.

Under his administration, claims for transparency and the healing of social wounds are ignored. Requests for accountability, protection for workers, a stop to the closing of hospitals and universities, pleas for land and legal crops for peasants — all have been brushed out or remain crippling. The Colombian people don't want terrorism, but neither do they want to sacrifice their social development on the altar of solidarity with Uribe's failing war policies.

Uribe's "popularity" is the result of the thousands of dollars he spends in media promotion. He holds well-publicized community meetings where he distributes blizzards of checks to the faithful. He demands prime time national TV coverage of his routine interviews and speeches. Meanwhile, he uses his power to cover his tracks in order to erase all traces of his connection to the paramilitaries. While quietly wiretapping the opposition, a la Nixon (and Bush?) Uribe desperately hopes that the flawed U.S. FTA can be disguised as a populist tool to ensure him and his political apparatus future reelections.

Who is Uribe really? As Jesus put it, by their deeds you will know them.

Uribe's choice to head the Colombian Police is a general whose brother was just convicted of narco trafficking in Germany.

Colombia leads the world in the number of union leaders murdered. It comes in fourth in the number of journalists. The government has completely investigated 2 percent of the union deaths — an excellent record compared to investigations of the killing of journalists, which amounted to exactly zero.

In 2002, fresh in power, Uribe proposed to Congress an amendment modifying the Public Order Law to decriminalize the right-wing paramilitaries. His novel judicial thesis: if criminals help the government, they can't really be criminals. At the same time Uribe declared that the leftist FARC guerrillas were not politically motivated, but exclusively criminal. The transparent goal of both these measures was not public order, but to legalize and strengthen the paramilitaries riding on the coattails of the FARC.

In 2003 Uribe went further, introducing the Penal Alternative Law, which initially specified no jail term for paramilitaries. With modifications, that law — the Justice and Peace Law — now establishes a maximum jail term between five to eight years. In May, Mr. Uribe introduced a project to soften the law even further by freeing any suspect not actually present at acts of torture, dismemberment and massacre by the paramilitaries.

There may be no smoking gun linking Uribe to the paramilitaries, but is it really necessary? When ministers, governors, senators and public servants close to Uribe are jailed for dealing with paramilitaries, is it possible that the president does not know his friends he has endorsed? At the beginning of his first term, prominent paramilitaries praised Uribe in the press and described him as "the best president we have ever had."

Recently, the accidental finding of a narco-paramilitary leader's laptop gave Colombians an early hint of Uribe's para-politics. Had it not been for this discovery, and the shocking disclosures it led to, Uribe might have succeeded in keeping all of this hidden.

Uribe uses the paramilitary slogan "exterminate the guerrillas," to project his power indefinitely. He does nothing effective to stop narco-trafficking or to dismantle corruption. Instead his war on FARC subversives has distorted domestic policies. By sacrificing social progress to total war on FARC, Uribe has only succeeded in spreading the insurgency. This development is not just ominous for Colombia, but for its neighbors. The "vietcongization" of Amazonia is growing day by day.

The United States has dealt successfully with the socialist government in Chile and the leftist government in Brazil. It could be equally successful in Colombia. Members of the Colombian opposition have traveled to the U.S, seeking help in extricating Colombia from its present perilous situation. Even the extreme Marxist guerrillas stated to Reuters and AP in 1999 that they did not "oppose foreign investment or free market mechanisms as long as social justice is guaranteed."

We know from Vietnam that foreign assistance is no substitute for government will. Uribe's government is weak on crime and addicted to a steady flow of cash from America. Betting still more on a tricky regime in Latin America can lead to disastrous consequences. It links the United States to an untrustworthy ally in a gamble that could turn out more costly than anticipated. In dealing with Uribe, the U.S. must be aware of the tricks of someone who could be Colombia's most successful con artist.

José María Rodríguez González is a Colombian-American U.S. foreign policy analyst.

 


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