What “Democratic Security” and For Whom?

Mischaracterizations of The Wall Street Journal

CSN Editorial by John I. Laun, November 2, 2008

On Monday October 20 the Wall Street Journal’s
“Americas” columnist, Mary Anastasia O’Grady, wrote a column
criticizing Barack Obama for calling attention to the murders of
labor union leaders in Colombia and human rights abuses there. It was
the latest in a long series of wrong-headed columns by Ms. O’Grady,
who appears oblivious to the real situation in Colombia. She lavished
praise upon President Alvaro Uribe and his government at the very
moment when he was sending troops into the sugar mills in western
Colombia to break up a strike by sugar cane cutters and mill workers,
with two killed and over 100 injured. Uribe also sent troops to break
up a peaceful march of indigenous peoples to protest being forced off
their lands by illegal paramilitaries with the tacit support of the
Colombian Army. Ms. O’Grady’s suggestion that labor union members and
others “are much safer under Uribe” is patently false.

Here are some real facts: 1) Colombia has more
internally displaced people (over 4 million of the country’s 44
million people) than any other country in the world. A large number
of these have been forced from their homes as a result of President
Uribe’s policies, which favor clearing resource-rich lands of the
peasants, indigenous communities and Afro-Colombians who live there
in order to promote large-scale export agriculture focused on African
palm production and to deliver to multinational corporations
extensive deposits of gold, coal, oil and other valuable minerals,
which the Uribe government allows them to extract and export with
very low royalty payments. The indigenous communities alone have
reported 1,253 deaths in the 6 years of the Uribe Administration.

2) The attacks on labor union members have been
unrelenting. The number killed in recent years, including the 6 years
of Alvaro Uribe’s Presidency, total more than 2,000. Multinational
businesses, among them Coca Cola, Drummond Coal, Occidental
Petroleum, and Chiquita Brands, have either hired, or winked as
private security forces hired, illegal paramilitary forces to target
union organizers in their Colombian affiliates or their own
operations in Colombia.

3) Ms. O’Grady has written that “Peace has finally
settled in after years of unspeakable terror.” Contrary to her
perceptions (or intentional misrepresentations), most of rural
Colombia continues to suffer from violence at the hands of resurgent
paramilitaries, whose murderous activities remain unpunished. More
than 15,000 persons have been “disappeared” by paramilitary forces,
later turning up dead or buried in mass graves. And there have even
been murders of innocent civilians kidnapped and killed by Colombian
Army units, which present them falsely as “guerrillas killed in
combat” (known in Colombia as “false positives”). These killings are
in response to Uribe’s pressure for the Army to report high numbers
of dead guerrillas, in return for which the reporting units and their
officers receive rewards from the government. Senator Gustavo Petro,
who first called attention to this phenomenon in 2006, reported this
week that as many as 2,000 noncombatant civilians have been murdered
in this Army campaign. Why doesn’t Ms. O’Grady mention the “false
positives”, which have caused terror throughout Colombia? Similar to
General Westmoreland’s body count motivation during the Vietnam War,
this wretched policy needs to be roundly condemned and ended.

4) The Uribe Administration has been penetrated with
paramilitaries linked to high officials in his government. Ms.
O’Grady in her article “FARC’s Human Rights Friends” of July 7, 2008
quotes favorably a Colombian to the effect that the paramilitaries
have been good medicine for Colombia—“like chemotherapy. It makes
sick and your hair falls out, but it saves your life.” For Ms.
O’Grady, obviously, some lives are worthy—those of Alvaro Uribe and
the narrow economic elite his policies favor— and others are not.
Her outrageous comment, in support of the creation of a paramilitary
state over which President Uribe has presided, ignores the death and
destruction the paramilitaries linked both to Uribe’s government and
to the Armed Forces have caused to hundreds of thousands of people.

For Ms. O’Grady those who criticize the Uribe
government’s human rights record are “friends” of the FARC
guerrillas. She quotes from a 2003 internal U.S. Embassy report (one
wonders how Ms. O’Grady got to see this report) to the effect that
analyses by non-governmental organizations, for example those of the
Jesuit research center CINEP, “contained a heavy bias against the
government while granting a wide berth to guerrillas.” In fact, CINEP
statistics report guerrilla abuses as well as Army and Police abuses,
as Ms. O’Grady would learn if she were to consider seriously and
impartially the work of this important defender of human rights. Most
human rights organizations, including the Colombia Support Network
(CSN), have consistently denounced abuses by the guerrillas, and have
publicly and severely criticized the FARC for kidnapping and for
other human rights and humanitarian law abuses.

Unfortunately, Ms. O’Grady’s severely biased and fact-
free description of Colombia appears to parallel the view of the Bush
Administration, which has ignored the illegal paramilitary background
of the Uribe Administration and refused to grant visas to many
Colombians who would tell the truth about Colombia to citizens and
policy-makers in this country. The latest to be denied a visa is
Father Rafael Gallego, a Catholic priest who works in the small town
of Tiquisio in the Middle Magdalena region of Colombia. CSN invited
Father Rafael to come to the United States and Canada to describe his
work in helping develop community organizations of peasants and small-
scale miners and initiating a community-based radio station with
them. On October 23 the U.S. Consulate in Bogota denied Father Rafael
a visa for secret “security” reasons, refusing to reveal the nature
and basis for this decision to him, or CSN, or his Catholic Bishop,
or the Provincial Head of the Jesuits in Colombia, who all supported
his visa request.

What could be so dangerous about Father Rafael’s planned
visit? He has worked for peace and rejected armed conflict, has
helped the poor and disadvantaged in an area where paramilitary
control is pervasive. He has sought to help bring to his parishioners
real security and real democracy, not the flawed, chimerical so-
called “democratic security” of President Uribe and his Bush
Administration apologists. Kudos to Barack Obama for continuing to
call attention to the problems with Uribe’s Colombia.

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