If you want to understand what’s behind the recent tension between Colombia and Venezuela, think “smokescreen,” and then go back several months to some sick children in the Department of Meta, just south of Bogota. The children fell ill after drinking from a local stream, a stream contaminated by the bodies of more than 2,000 people, secretly buried by the Colombian military.
According to the Colombian high command, the mass grave just outside the army base at La Macarena contains the bodies of guerilla fighters killed between 2002 and 2009 in that country’s long-running civil war. But given the army’s involvement in the so-called “false positive” scandal, human rights groups are highly skeptical that the dead are members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army, the two insurgent groups fighting the central government.
“False positive” is the name given to the Colombian armed forces operation that murdered civilians and then dressed them up in insurgent uniforms in order to demonstrate the success of the army’s counterinsurgency strategy, thus winning more aid from the U.S. According to the human rights organizations Comision de Derechos Homanos del Bajo Ariari and Colectivo Orlando Fals Borda, some 2,000 civilians have been murdered under the program.
The bodies at La Macarena have not been identified yet, but suspicion is that they represent victims of the “false-positive” program, as well as rural activists and trade unionists. The incoming Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, was defense secretary when the murders were talking place. Santos also oversaw a brief invasion of Ecuador in 2008 that reportedly killed a number of insurgents. The invasion was widely condemned throughout Latin America.
Diverting attention is what outgoing Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is all about. While his foreign minister, Luis Alfonso Hoyos, was laying out photos and intelligence claiming that Venezuela was hosting upwards of 1,500 Colombian insurgents, a group of Latin American NGOs were uncovering a vast scheme by Uribe’s Department of Administrative Security (DAS) to sabotage the activities of journalists, judges, NGOs, international organizations and political opponents. Some of these “dirty tricks” included death threats.
Because the U.S.—which has pumped more than $7 billion in military aid to Colombia—supplies the DAS with sophisticated surveillance technology, Washington may end up implicated in the scandal.
The U.S. may also be tarred with the murder of Colombian trade unionists. According to Kelly Nichollas of the U.S. Office on Colombia, testimony at the trial of former DAS director Jorge Noguera indicated that the U.S. trained a special Colombian intelligence unit that tracked trade unionists.
Colombia is currently the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. According to the International Trade Unionist Confederation’s (ITUC) Annual Survey of Trade Union Rights, out of the 101 unionists murdered in 2009, 48 were in Colombia. So far, 20 more Colombian trade unionists have been murdered in 2010. In the case of Hernan Abdiel Ordonez, treasurer of the prison worker’s union, who had complained about corruption, the government refused to provide him security in spite of receiving numerous death threats. He was gunned down by assassins on a motorcycle.
“Colombia was once again the country where standing up for fundamental rights of workers is more likely than anywhere else to mean a death sentence, despite the Colombian government’s public relations campaign,” said ITCU General Secretary Guy Ryder. “The Colombian authorities must take urgent and effective measures to guarantee the physical integrality of Colombian trade unionists.”
Uribe certainly has reason to shift the attention away from Colombia and toward Venezuela. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is pressing its investigation of the “false-positives” murders, and Uribe’s brother has been accused of working with death squads. Santiago Canton, an Argentinean and former head of the rights commission, said “If you put all this together, the extrajudicial executions, the espionage of human rights defenders, it’s all really consistent over the years.”
And where was the Obama Administration in all this? Firmly supporting Uribe, railing against Venezuela’s suspension of diplomacy with Bogota, and, according to an investigation by the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), secretly funneling money to the media operations of Chavez’s right-wing opponents. Right-wingers in Bolivia and Nicaragua are also receiving money.
“Between 2007 and 2009, the State Department’s little known Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor channeled at least $4 million to journalists in Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela through the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF),” says NACLA’s Jeremy Bigwood. In doing this, the State Department violated its own rules requiring that “all publications” receiving money “acknowledge that support.” According to Bigwood, the U.S. waived that requirement for PADF.
Colombia is Washington’s closest ally in the region, so it hardly surprising that Uribe’s right-wing government and Washington’s visceral hatred of Chavez should find common ground. But the attack on Chavez is also a proxy assault on the newly formed, 32-member Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the first regional organization not to include the U.S., Canada, or European countries.
Meeting in Caracas this past July, CELAC selected Chavez and the newly elected conservative president of Chile, Sabastian Pinera, as co-chairs of the forum that will draft statutes for the organization. While it seems like an odd pairing, the U.S. media’s cartoonish characterization of Chavez is not shared widely in Latin America. “Chavez…has shown himself adaptable to making major compromises in order to further Latin American and regional integration,” says Alexander Main of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.
And while Pinera is very conservative, according to Main, “his toned down approach to international relations indicates that he too is prepared to act pragmatically.”
The Caracas meeting called for “political, economic, social and cultural integration” and affirmed the right of “each state to constitute its own political system free of threats, aggressions and unilateral coercive measures.” Tellingly, there was no mention of “free trade” or “open markets,” the so-called “Washington consensus” that characterized U.S. economic doctrine in the region over the past several decades.
As Latin America grows in economic strength and political independence, U.S. policy seems locked into a previous century when it was the major power in the region. Rather than retooling its diplomatic approach to fit the new reality in Latin America, Washington is expanding its military footprint.
It is will soon be operating out of seven military bases in Colombia and has reactivated its 4th Fleet, both highly unpopular moves in Latin America. Rather than taking the advice of countries in the region to demilitarize its war on drugs, the U.S. recently announced it is deploying 46 warships and 7,000 soldiers to Costa Rica to “interdict” drug traffic and money laundering. From 2000 to 2009, less than 40 percent of U.S. aid to the region went to Latin America’s militaries and police. The Obama Administration has raised that figure to 47 percent.
Washington and Bogota may try to demonize Venezuela, but they are playing to a very small audience, and one that grows smaller—and more irrelevant—by the day.
Conn Hallinan’s essays can be read at Dispatches from the Edge