Monday, September 19, 2011

A Glass Half-Full

Villagers of San Jose de Apartado carry the casket of a victim of a massacre allegedly committed by soldiers and right-wing paramilitaries. 
The other day, in an annual ritual, the United States recertified Colombia's human rights record, permitting Colombia's military to receive all alloted U.S. funding.

The U.S. State Department could hardly have done differently. With Colombia about its only firm  ally remaining in the region, relations already chilled by Washington's failure to ratify the bilateral free trade agreement, and Bogotá's increasing ties to China and Venezuela, Washington could ill afford to damper relations further.

The certification has been widely criticized by human rights groups, who point out that killings of union leaders have continued, lack of prosecution of military officers involved in the 'false positives' killing, alleged continued collaboration between the military and right-wing paramilitaries, and other rights violations.

Even the State Department's own press release announcing the certification sounded pretty damning:

"Threats and attacks against human rights defenders continue to be a significant problem, as the Colombian government acknowledges. As the government has advanced its land restitution policy, criminal interests have targeted land activists; more than a dozen have been murdered this year."

Painting by Fernando Botero
depicting violence in Colombia. 
The lead editorial in today's El Tiempo also observes that after six years of the Law of Justice and Peace, meant to bring paramilitaries and others to justice, despite 26,086 crimes confessed, by 4,634 ex-fighters against 350,000 víctimas, only four offenders have been sentenced.

It looks pretty clear that if instead of Colombia this were the anti-American Venezuela of Hugo Chavez, certification would have been out of the question.

Still, the State Department's points about Colombia's progress are also valid. Under Pres. Juan Manuel Santos, prosecutors have more aggressively investigated scandals and alleged abuses committed under his predecessor, Pres. Alvaro Uribe. Santos also backed an ambitious plan to return land to victims of Colombia's seemingly interminable armed conflict.

By engaging Colombia's government and economy, does the U.S. push the country to clean up its act? Even that is disputable, unfortunately. Several U.S. companies, including ones in the coal and banana and oil industries, have allegedly helped finance, perhaps under threat, right-wing death squads.

and, if engagement works here, then why does Washington refuse to try the policy in Cuba, which is closer to home and whose economy is so tiny that U.S. influence would presumably be much more powerful?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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