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Cornered President

High Stakes in the Andes

Thursday 6 March 2008, by FORREST HYLTON

Sadly, the operation on March 1 in which the Colombian Armed Forces shot and killed Luis Edgar Devia Silva, a.k.a. "Raúl Reyes," spokesman for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), along with sixteen other guerrillas in a camp across the Putumayo River in Ecuador, was yet another case of the oft-mentioned "death foretold" that characterizes the country’s seemingly endless civil war.

Eerily, in a March 1 column, one of Colombia’s most prescient political analysts, Alfredo Molano, predicted that a giant storm cloud was about to sweep across some portion of Colombia’s borderlands. Molano described how President Álvaro Uribe had brought the war with the FARC to the Darien Gap joining Panama, the Catatumbo region of Northern Santander shared with Venezuela, and the frontiers of Pasto and Putumayo bordering Ecuador. In Molano’s view, the fact that Uribe had been politically cornered at home and abroad made a widening war across national borders all but inevitable. As Justin Podur noted, domestic and foreign pressure for a negotiated peace-that is, a political solution to the armed conflict-has led to an escalation of the war by the stronger, more violent party, along Israeli lines.

Since the end of 2006, Uribe has been beset by the parapolítica scandal, in which some 77 political figures, including 14 congresspersons, nearly all of them staunch allies of the president, are under investigation for ties to rightwing paramilitaries. The scandal reveals how the president and the Casa de Nariño (presidential palace) in Bogotá are tied to the country’s regions, where power and authority are delegated, hence most directly exercised. Indeed, most of the para-politicos investigated are local office holders-governors, mayors, legislators, etc. The bedrock of the paramilitary-politico alliance was sealed in 2001 with the "Pacto de Ralito" in Córdoba province. The pact led to the first and second election of Uribe with solid-indeed fervent-paramilitary support in congress and the regional state bureaucracies.

Parapolítica and the President

Politicians under investigation include Uribe’s closest political ally and second cousin, Senator Mario Uribe, who fell under suspicion after former paramilitary chieftain Salvatore Mancuso testified to meetings he had with the president’s cousin to map electoral strategy in Antioquia and Córdoba provinces. As Molano notes, what everyone knows and has long talked about in those provinces-relations between the Uribe family, land deals and landholding, rightwing politics, and paramilitarism-is but a step away from becoming a matter of public record. As early as 1987 and as recently as 2002, distinguished investigative journalists began looking into (and in some cases uncovering) these connections. Uribe has publicly lashed out at journalists digging into his past, forcing some to flee the country amid ensuing death threats. Now, it would seem, legal issues, and not merely personal honor, are at stake.

This explains, at least in part, Uribe’s confrontations with the Supreme Court, whose authority he has repeatedly attempted to undermine in order to obtain "political" status for paramilitary commanders looking to whitewash their criminal pasts. As Senator Gustavo Petro highlighted in 2005 during debates about the "Justice and Peace" law regulating paramilitary demobilization, there is reason to believe that Uribe aims to protect family members from future prosecution with its passage. During the parliamentary debates about parapolítica in March 2007, Petro named Antioquia under governor Uribe (1995-97) as the birthplace of modern-day paramilitarism. Any investigation of its roots would need to begin there.

Claudia López, co-author of the most comprehensive scholarly study of paramilitary penetration of local and regional politics in Colombia between 2002 and 2006, recently remarked on the extent to which, especially compared to the Caribbean coast, parapolítica investigations have stalled in Uribe’s native Antioquia. This is to be expected, as there is undoubtedly much to hide: Under Uribe’s watch, paramilitary activity-along with murders and disappearances of thousands of suspected guerrillas-skyrocketed to record levels through close coordination with the military and provincial government officials.

Though Uribe has made numerous tours of Europe and the U.S. in order to sell peace with the paramilitaries and war with the FARC, the parapolítica scandal has become his Achilles heel. A number of leading Democrats and not a few Republican congresspersons are wary of a trade agreement with Colombia, given human rights conditions and lingering doubts about the president’s ties to paramilitaries. In May 2007, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, leader of the House Foreign Relations Committee, reprimanded Uribe and sent him home empty-handed when he tried to sidestep the issues in Washington. Because of ties to organized labor, Hillary Clinton has kept her distance from him in this electoral season, while Al Gore refused to attend an event in Miami last year that Uribe was scheduled to attend. (Unsurprisingly, Bill Clinton has been less circumspect, hob-knobbing with Uribe at an event called "Colombia is Passion" in New York City in May.)

A bilateral "free trade" agreement with the U.S. has been one of Uribe’s chief goals since coming to power in 2002, but it appears increasingly remote. European countries, meanwhile, are reluctant to contribute funds for war with the FARC or peace with paramilitaries, and their meager offers of development aid are of little import to him.

Chávez, Reyes, and the Hostages

Uribe has also been increasingly cornered by the foreign policy of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. In what constitutes the major achievement by a Latin American statesperson in recent memory, after months of negotiations (sanctioned by President Uribe), in January and February of this year Chávez convinced the FARC to turn over six hostages to his government-all of them former politicians who, upon release, began agitating for the release of the rest of the prisoners, particularly Ingrid Betancourt, a center-left politician with dual French-Colombian citizenship.

Betancourt’s family, together with human rights organizations and NGOs, have mounted a relatively successful campaign of public awareness and political pressure in France: President Sarkozy’s government has reiterated its commitment to free Betancourt, acknowledging the positive role Chávez and the Venezuelan government have played thus far. For Uribe, such meddling strengthens FARC diplomacy in Europe, which is why he wanted Reyes dead. In Uribe’s eyes, Reyes and the FARC paved the way for Betancourt’s family and European NGO’s to damage his image and undermine his policy of war as peace. In 2001, as part of the FARC’s "peace process" with former president Andrés Pastrana, Reyes toured Europe and deepened existing ties to European governments and NGOs. As recently declassified documents obtained by the non-governmental National Security Archive demonstrate, in 1998 Reyes established contact with a U.S. diplomatic mission in Costa Rica led by Philip T. Chicola, then director of the State Department’s Office of Andean Affairs. For all intents and purposes, Reyes was the FARC’s ambassador.

For Uribe, then, Reyes was a rival, a competitor, and according to the mafia rules that govern politics in Colombia, such people must die. There were scores to be settled: it was Reyes and the FARC who, in the mid-1990s, convinced allies in European government and society that Uribe’s security policies in Antioquia were unacceptable in terms of human rights and international law. And it was Reyes and his pals (no women were invited) who charmed European politicians and solidarity groups in Europe in 2001. This set the stage for Uribe’s damaged credibility in Europe after 2002. Since then, Reyes has presented his organization’s position before the European Parliament: prisoner exchanges that lead to a negotiated peace settlement. There is strong support for such a policy in official European circles.

Reyes was not a charismatic leader, nor is Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, who has led the FARC since it was founded in 1966. The FARC does not depend on charismatic individuals for its survival. More important than Reyes or Marulanda to FARC coffers was Tomás Medina Caracas, alias "Negro Acacio," a former public school teacher who became the first FARC commander wanted for extradition to the U.S. after September 11, 2001, on charges of cocaine trafficking. At the time of Medina’s death in September 2007, much was made of the putative "blow" it represented to the FARC, as Medina was the group’s answer to Pablo Escobar, managing cocaine routes and protection rackets through Venezuela, Brazil, and the Guyanas. Since Medina’s death, no one has mentioned him again, and it would be surprising if his routes had been disrupted or destroyed without proper media fanfare. At the time of his death, seasoned commentators were quick to note that as a matter of policy, the FARC have at least three people ready to take the place of someone like Medina at a moment’s notice. As Fernando Cubides has argued, the FARC is an "armed bureaucracy."

Thus there is no shortage of trained personnel to keep the war machine running, and it is unlikely that the killing of Raúl Reyes will make much of a dent in its functioning, except in terms of negotiating the release of the remaining hostages and laying the foundation for a negotiated peace; in terms of politics rather than total war. This explains the reaction of French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who said, "It is bad news that the man we were talking to, with whom we had contacts, has been killed. Do you see how ugly the world is?"

It may tempting to dismiss Kouchner’s question, but his point may be somewhat more subtle: namely, that Uribe killed Reyes in a deliberate effort to block the French government from negotiating the release of Ingrid Betancourt. Were Betancourt to be freed, Uribe would likely come under international pressure to grant the FARC political status as a pre-condition for a negotiated political settlement, and might have to contend with Betancourt’s efforts to build a broad anti-Uribe coalition at home and abroad.

It is doubtful that the United States was directly involved in killing Reyes, since Plan Colombia was specifically designed to give the Colombian government the hardware, surveillance, and training to carry out such missions on its own. The Bush administration, of course, has greeted the death of a top FARC "terrorist" with glee, legal niceties and political subtleties aside. Uribe does not appear to have asked permission to pursue Reyes into Ecuador, but in light of past episodes, he had little reason to fear a reprimand from Washington, and was likely emboldened by past precedent. Whether Washington gives the green light beforehand matters little, as long as Uribe’s moves are sanctioned ex post facto, as they were on March 4.

High Stakes in the Andes

Ecuadorian and Venezuelan government responses came quickly and unequivocally: within 48 hours, both broke off all diplomatic ties with Colombia and moved troops, tanks, and planes to their borders. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa explained that in addition to the efforts of Sarkozy and Chávez, his government had been working on the liberation of 12 hostages-including Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. mercenaries-at the time Reyes was assassinated. He added negotiations were at an "advanced" stage. Chávez jumped in and labeled Uribe a "criminal, mafioso, paramilitary" in charge of a "narco-government." In one of his more restrained remarks, the Venezuelan president said, "It is very serious that a country arrogates to itself the right to bomb the territory of a neighbor and commit an incursion to take bodies, violating many international laws. Think of the consequences, not just for Colombia, but for your neighbors."

Predictably, Uribe engaged in an almost surreal effort to re-create the atmosphere of the build-up to the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The smoking gun was Reyes’ laptop, reportedly recovered at the scene. Head of Colombia’s National Police, Gen. Oscar Naranjo alleged that the FARC had been plotting to get uranium for a dirty bomb: "When they mention negotiations for 50 kilos of uranium, this means that the FARC are taking big steps in the world of terrorism to become a global aggressor. We’re not talking of domestic guerrillas but transnational terrorism." On March 4, the Colombian government announced that the FARC was building a dirty bomb. All of this would seem to be a transparent attempt to convince the U.S. government and the rest of the world that the incident-and the region-can be neatly slotted into the global "war on terror."

Though allegations have cropped up repeatedly, as ideologically needed, since Chávez came to power in 1998, no one has ever documented illicit ties between Chávez and the FARC; the Uribe government is apparently now free to invent them. Another item recovered from Reyes’ hard drive purportedly demonstrates that the FARC received $300 million in payments from Chávez as recently as February. To Gen. Naranjo, this suggested clear proof of "an armed alliance between the FARC and the Venezuelan government." A third item allegedly contains a thank-you note from Chávez during his stint in prison after his failed coup attempt in 1992. Given the advanced division of labor within the FARC, it would be odd indeed if its ambassador kept such delicate-and, in the case of the "prison letter" from Chávez, dated-information so readily accessible. For good measure, the Colombian government also alleged that recovered documents linked the Ecuadorian government to the FARC.

The Venezuelan government was not fazed. Vice president Ramón Carrizales said, "We are accustomed to the lies of the Colombian government. Whatever they say has no importance. They can invent anything now to try to get out of that violation of Ecuadorian territory that they committed." President Correa met with his cabinet to inform them of his government’s position: "They said we had a pact with terrorists, and that is completely false. We are dealing with an extremely cynical government."

Perhaps the most hopeful development to arise out of the whole morass is the new multilateralism in South America: the regional powers, Chile and Brazil, demanded an official apology from Colombia to Ecuador, and were followed by Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru; all countries were eager to find a peaceful solution through the Organization of American States (OAS).

There is even more diplomatic unity against Uribe than there was when he supported the U.S.-preferred candidate for Secretary General of the OAS in 2005. That was the first time since the organization was founded in Bogotá in 1948 under the watchful eye of Secretary of State George Marshall that the U.S. candidate did not win. In dealing with Uribe’s incursion, South American countries may well make another end run around the U.S. and Colombia through the OAS, and at the very least, foreign ministers have agreed to conduct an investigation. Chávez has proposed to revive the Contadora group of countries whose governments helped broker peace agreements in Central America in the 1990s in spite of U.S. government obstructionism. The latest violation of Ecuadorian sovereignty could convince other South American countries of the need for such a group.

Poster for victims’ march: "Memory and Dignity for the Displaced, the Murdered, the Disappeared, the Victims."

The protest march called for tomorrow, March 6, in Colombia and the world to commemorate the victims of paramilitary and state violence will be a test of the political temperature. A range of sectors have promised to participate: trade unions, human rights groups, families of the kidnapped and disappeared, women’s and neighborhood organizations, peasant, Afro-Colombian, indigenous, and student groups. If this push for truth, justice, and a negotiated peace finds an echo in multilateral diplomatic initiatives, Uribe could find himself cornered yet again; a frightening prospect, unless progressive forces in the hemisphere prove strong enough to contain him and his northern patrón.

Forrest Hylton is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006), and with Sinclair Thomson, of Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics (Verso, 2007). He is a frequent contributor to NACLA, where this essay originally appeared.