The liberation of French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt and of her fellow hostages has been a fabulously welcome event. The joy of her loved ones was one of the best moments of international news this week, as well as the disarray of the FARC and the stupor of their fellow travellers in Latin America and elsewhere.
Colombia offers an interesting test for a more progressive transatlantic policy. For years the political scene in this Andean nation has been dominated by extremist forces, the guerrillas on one side, the paramilitaries on the other side, and the official approaches of both Washington and Brussels have excessively relied on the current president Alvaro Uribe.
From the perspective of law and order the Colombian president has indeed a lot to say in his favor. He has cornered the FARC, a brutal group accused by mainstream human rights groups of war crimes and crimes against humanity and deeply involved in criminal activities like drug trafficking, racketeering and abductions. He has drastically reduced the number of kidnappings and re-established the authority of the state in areas that were for many years lawless and off limits.
Does it mean however that he should be considered as the reference by democratic nations? Most in the human rights movement would be beg to differ on this and refer to serious flaws in Uribe’s democratic credentials. In a recent assessment Human Rights Watch has highlighted the soft treatment that has been given to the paramilitary thugs, the heirs of the true Colombian drama, the pig-headed resistance of her oligarchy to the lightest forms of social and political reform. New paramilitary groups are reappearing in the shadows of a flawed process of demobilization and disarmament. The army itself according to HRW is resuming its practise of human rights and humanitarian law abuses.
A real progressive transatlantic alternative should be proposed now in order to help Colombia to escape from its extremes. The Plan Colombia is too militaristic, too tolerant of Uribe’s conservative politics. And most European nations are following the U.S. line on Colombia.
The democratic opposition to the free trade agreement between Colombia and the U.S. might be opposed on commercial grounds. It offers however a real opportunity to remind the Colombian government that it has a long way to go to protect trade unionists and peaceful democratic dissidents against the brutalities of the extreme right. This protection for normal democratic activity is the only hope for a peaceful transition in Colombia. And both European and U.S. democrats should make it clear that their rejection of the FARC’s extremism and undignified tactics does not mean that they offer a free ride to Uribe.
This discussion could start within the international trade union movement, of which the AFL-CIO is an active and influential member. It could involve associations of journalists and human rights organizations, on both sides of the Atlantic, that have been monitoring the Colombian situation. It could be supported by religious groups that know the tragedies of the country, the fate of Indians, Afro-Colombians, poor peasants, slum dwellers.
In the 80s the violence of Central American wars was addressed by coalition of the willing, bringing together U.S. democrats, European progressives and Latin American moderates, from Senator Sanford to Costa Rican President Arias Sanchez and Swedish diplomat Pierre Schori.
The calamity of a “war of 60 years” in Colombia needs a similar mobilization. The liberation of the hostages has been a wonderful event. It should be the trigger to a new awakening, a surge in favour of a decent, human, solution to a crisis that has lasted for too long and has ruined too many lives. The conservatives will never solve Colombia’s crisis, the die-hard Stalinists either. Arthur Schlesinger would have talked of the need for “a vital center”. Yes, indeed.