Research: Commentary

In harmony, for the moment

June 11, 2006 | Article

By Adam Isacson

Here is a translation of a column which appeared in June 2006's edition of the Colombian newspaper El Espectador. This version is a bit longer than what appeared in print, due to a small snafu (they had asked for 900 words, then determined that they couldn’t fit that much).

In harmony, for the moment

It shouldn’t surprise us that the Bush administration and the Republican majority in the U.S. Congress were very pleased with Ãlvaro Uribe’s reelection. They can now be sure that, for four more years, they can remain in harmony with one of the few unconditional allies they still have in Latin America, and one of the few loyal adherents to the “Washington Consensus.”

The State Department’s happiness was evident. Within 48 hours it announced a much-delayed “certification” of Colombia. Twice each year, the law requires a certification that the Colombian armed forces are improving their human-rights performance; each certification frees up approximately $35 million in “frozen” military aid. This process has been controversial, because it has been difficult to show improvements.

The House Republicans have sought even closer relations with Uribe. In mid-May, the House Appropriations Committee changed the structure of aid to Colombia for 2007, transferring economic aid (about $140 million) from the counter-narcotics program to “regular,” non-drug economic aid. “It is time to move away from treating Colombia as a narcostate,” said Rep. Jim Kolbe, the committee’s Republican chairman.

The Bush administration and the Republican legislative majority, which dominate Washington right now, continue to seek perfect harmony with Colombia, and we will hear them all singing together when Uribe visits the United States next week.

But there is a minority that has not lost the ability to express doubts and ask questions. While it is politically difficult to challenge someone who just won an election with 62 percent of the vote, the message from the Democrats and some less-right-wing Republicans is: Colombia has not been written a blank check.

On the Democratic side, several important legislators are concerned about the human-rights climate in Colombia, which they see as worsening quickly. They have noted the serious trends documented in the UN High Commissioner’s annual report and other new accusations of military participation in abuses. They have noted the increases in displacement, forced disappearances, and the wave of threats against unionists, journalists, and human-rights defenders. Key Democratic senators know about the murder of Jaime Gãmez and the massive use of force against indigenous protests in Cauca three weeks ago. They have strong doubts, to say the least, about the ongoing process with the paramilitaries. And they are upset about scandals like the infiltration of the DAS, the torture of recruits in Tolima, and the military massacre of a police counter-drug unit in Jamundã.

The Democrats are taking action. As I write this, Rep. Jim McGovern is promoting an amendment in the House to cut funding from fumigations. Three weeks ago, three prominent senators, Patrick Leahy, Chris Dodd and Barack Obama, wrote a strong letter [PDF] to Nicholas Burns, the number-three official at the Department of State, criticizing a blindly optimistic column he wrote about Colombia in the Miami Herald. “There are reasons to be seriously concerned about whether our current policy can achieve its goals,” they warned.

This week, Sen. Leahy disputed the human-rights certification that had been issued after Uribe’s reelection. As the Senate’s ranking Democrat in charge of foreign aid, he took the unusual step of temporarily halting the military aid that had just been “unfrozen.”

Meanwhile, some Republicans are unsatisfied with the results of the drug war under Plan Colombia. The revelation in April that there was more coca measured in Colombia in 2005 than in 2000, the year Plan Colombia began, dropped like a bomb on the current policy. Important senators and representatives from the moderate wing of Republicanism (Charles Grassley, Richard Lugar, Jim Kolbe) have expressed unhappiness with the evident failure of fumigations as the strategy’s principal axis. But most Republicans remain firmly in support of glyphosate.

The current panorama in Washington, then, involves on one side, those who hold power and support Uribe almost unconditionally, and on the other side, a minority that, while it does not oppose such a popular president, is uncomfortable and wants to see changes.

This panorama could change significantly this November, when the United States elects a new House and one-third of its Senate. Uribe’s allies in Washington are awaiting this date with some apprehension, because at the moment their popularity is at its lowest point. Polls indicate President Bush’s approval ratings at around 30 per cent, and there is a growing possibility that the Democrats might win a majority in the House, and perhaps the Senate, in November.

If the Democrats win in November, the new speaker of the House will be Nancy Pelosi, and the new chairman of the Appropriations Committee will be David Obey; both are critics of Plan Colombia. And Rep. McGovern, who tries every year to amend the law to reduce military aid, would be one of the chief members of the powerful Rules Committee. In the Senate, Patrick Leahy, who is currently holding up military aid funds, would be the senator who writes the basic draft of the foreign aid bill each year.

Putting them in charge of the Congress would not mean an immediate end to fumigations or Plan Patriota. But there would be much more human-rights scrutiny and concern about the quality of Colombia’s democratic institutions. There would be less emphasis on fumigation, and more resources to strengthen governance and fight poverty, priorities which today account for less than 20 percent of U.S. aid to Colombia.

Even with a strengthened Democratic congressional bloc, though, Ãlvaro Uribe would still be the closest U.S. ally in Latin America. The Bush administration, which is in power through 2008, will see to that. But the embrace would be less close, and criticisms and conditions would be stronger.

Of course, it remains quite possible that nothing will change in November. It is hard to bet against the Republicans, who have won every legislative and presidential election since 2000. If everything remains the same after November, Washington and Bogotã will continue to sing the same tune, in perfect harmony.

CIP in the Press