Media Myths on Colombia
I have a recurring question: Why do the major media in this country so often get Colombia so wrong?
A recent example of media coverage confirms my concern. Lisa Logan, identified as CBS News chief foreign correspondent, reported that Colombian Special Operations Forces would soon be sent to Afghanistan to help the U.S. defeat the Taliban there. Ms. Logan began her account by stating that the “battle tested” Colombian commandos had gained their experience “from having defeated terrorists in their own country”. Except they have not done so: the FARC and ELN guerrillas continue to have several thousand armed personnel in the country. And the paramilitary forces, classified as “terrorists” by the U.S. State Department on September 10, 2001, are active in substantial numbers throughout Colombia. In many instances they have acted in concert with units of the Colombian Army, which has itself engaged in massacres, forced displacement and extrajudicial executions on a wide scale, as detailed in a CSN report elsewhere on this website. While Ms. Logan rapturously proclaims that the Colombian Army is composed of “some of the finest soldiers in the world”, she fails to mention the Army’s widespread kidnapping of youths to kill them and present them falsely as “guerrillas killed in combat”, so as to earn rewards promised for dead guerrillas in a Ministry of National Defense document (the so-called “false positives” scandal).
Ms. Logan goes on to report that Colombia’s “economy is thriving and order has been restored”. One wonders what country Ms. Logan is referring to. Anyone who has spent any time in Colombia recently knows that unemployment is very widespread, with beggars and prostitutes more visible than ever on the streets of major cities and with severe food shortages in the countryside. And “order”, Ms. Logan? There are currently 4.5 million internally displaced people in Colombia, more than in any other country in the world except Sudan/Darfur! This displacement of some 10% of the country’s population is largely the result of the policies carried out by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez during the seven years of his presidency. Ms. Logan’s concept of “order” is indeed very strange!
Instead of examining what has happened in the so-called “War on Drugs”, Ms. Logan enthuses that cocaine production has fallen by 28%. If she were to check her sources carefully, she would find that coca production has actually increased since the U.S. brought coca crop fumigation to Colombia, at a cost of some $6 billion since the year 2000. She would do well to adopt the view expressed by Members of Congress who signed a recent letter circulated by Wisconsin Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin in which they categorized the drug war as a failure. (See the letter reproduced elsewhere on this webpage.) Not only has the fumigation failed to substantially reduce the production of coca, it has destroyed the food crops of thousands of small-scale farmers, forcing them impoverished off their lands into the cities, where they remain unemployed, or pushing them into the rainforest, where they cut out parcels on which to grow coca, the only crop which is economically productive for them, given the Colombian government’s long failure to provide farm-to-market roads, crop subsidies, agricultural credit, or agricultural extension programs which might make alternative crops economically feasible.
Instead of extolling the current Colombian government’s supposed achievements, as supported by U.S. policies, Ms. Logan should focus on what the billions of dollars of U.S. military aid to Colombia have really achieved. Since 2000 the U.S. has poured more than $6 billion into military and related expenditures in Colombia. The results? 1)Thousands of Colombians killed each year by armed groups, most of the killings by paramilitaries involved in the drug trade many of whom are supported by act or omission of the Colombian Army; (2) small farmers’ food crops decimated by fumigation carried out by private contractors supported by Colombian military units; and 3) misuse of funds by a staggeringly corrupt Presidential administration, with the DAS (Presidential security apparatus) murdering people, illegally wiretapping and intercepting communications of members of the Colombian Congress and Supreme Court Justices; high-ranking members of the Uribe Administration bribing Congresswoman Yidis Medina to change her vote in a Congressional committee to permit President Uribe’s reelection; a Ministry of Agriculture program lavishing money on President Uribe’s political supporters under the pretence of advancing environmental protections. And these are only a small sample of the ways in which corruption has become endemic in the current Colombian government.
How does Ms. Logan characterize this corrupt government? She cites an evaluation she attributes to U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield: Colombia is the best investment of U.S. taxpayer money this century!!! Ms. Logan needs to visit rural Colombia, and she needs to talk to human rights organizations, not simply take at face value the gibberish our embassy hands out. She should come on one of our delegations—several journalists have—to visit the real Colombia. As far as that goes, Ambassador Brownfield could not even bring himself to make his preposterous conclusion to one of our delegations in a meeting with us a few weeks ago. He knows we know the country too well to conclude that U.S. funding for Colombia has been a good investment. But he also knows that CBS at its highest reporting level in Latin America is woefully ignorant of what goes on in Colombia!
Ms. Logan concludes her piece by quoting a U.S. official as saying: “The more Afghanistan can look like Colombia, the better.” Let’s see, that means we want Afghanistan to be run by a corrupt authoritarian government linked to illegal paramilitaries engaged in drug-trafficking; with 10% of its population internally displaced; with Armed Forces engaged in horrific attacks on noncombatant civilians; and with an anti-drug program that decimates small farmers’ subsistence crops. Heaven help us if Afghanistan reproduces the Colombian model! And heaven help us if lazy, sloppy journalism like that of Laura Logan of CBS News reports the “progress” in Afghanistan as she has reported the supposed “progress” in Colombia!
John I. Laun
October 2, 2009