Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Amara. Our five-month-old picks up her rattles and shakes them with enthusiasm. Soft “ahhs” and “coos” that sound fresh from Eden are old news; she provides running commentary in confident gurgles and babble with loud, shrill sounds for emphasis. Most endearingly, she eagerly returns smiles to fawning admirers and belly laughs with her parents.

On the homefront. Jess is now on his parental leave, which affords ample time to be with Amara and indulgently practice being a news junkie. Reenergized by four months of maternity leave, I’m enjoying my return to Justapaz. I’m working part time and taking two seminary courses. We are deeply blessed by our time as a family.

In the news—and what doesn’t make headlines. Developments on Colombia’s political front are more complex and less charming and benign than Amara’s. The dynamism of the moment makes it hard to comment on this critical juncture without providing a skewed picture, but I’ll reference a few developments.

The rescue mission of former presidential candidate, French Colombian citizen Ingrid Betancourt, three US contractor workers and 11 Colombians gave Colombian President Uribe a major popularity boost. Colombia Gallup polls put his approval ratings at a record-high 86 %.

On the international scene, even news sources like the Guardian and the BBC seem to be reporting on Colombia through a new rosy glow for this administration. As noted in my last letter, the euphoria incited by the rescue mission was a collective experience in Colombia. But reflections should move beyond that moment.

Two comments related to developments of the famous bloodless military mission of 15. One of the army commandos admits using the Red Cross emblem and two others confess posing as TeleSur news journalists during the rescue mission. These actions put real journalists in danger and may jeopardize the important work of the Red Cross in the Colombian conflict. Masquerading in this way represents violations of International Humanitarian Law.

Secondly, the warranted enthusiasm has clouded from view an important fact: we are still in the midst of an armed conflict. While the FARC are clearly weakened, one impressive rescue mission does not tip Colombia over the precipice into the post-conflict phase. Reports from the regions testify to the continuation of war, albeit a different stage. The documented cases volunteers from around the country send to me—of active (never demobilized) paramilitary, demobilized narco-paramilitary, rearmed demobilized paramilitary, collusion between the aforementioned actors and state actors, extrajudicial murders and FARC and ELN guerrilla violence—tell a story different from the Colombian and US official versions.

On to another subject. What have you heard about the 14 paramilitary leaders extradited to the US on drug trafficking charges? As formally demobilized paramilitary, they were being processed under what is known as the “justice and peace law” and were in the midst of hearings. Their confessions, partial at best, of macabre acts evolved to include naming ties with the Colombian government and international corporations. Testimonies revealed strategies, intellectual authors of crimes and kingpins of paramilitary structures. These truths fed the “para politics” scandal and, at that moment, the Uribe Administration effectively cut off the hearings by allowing the US to whisk them off to be processed for drug trafficking. It left me sputtering—what? As the 14 para leaders are now under US jurisdiction, they are only being tried for drug charges and not for the countless instances of torture, homicides, and other war crimes committed. As noted by one Colombian analyst: “The ex-narco-paramilitaries’ revelations about their partners in crime ended up being subordinated to the narcotrafficking proceedings, and their “truths” turned into bargaining chips for sentences even lighter than those anticipated under Law 975 (the justice and peace law).”

But they may not even be the big winners. As the notorious paramilitary leader from north-western Colombia Ever Veloza García, alias “HH,” said in a radio interview last week, “the only ones that won are the rich of this country. The ones who invested in the war, who paid money for us to kill.” In an interview available on Y-tube he affirms that “the majority of the people who died in this war are innocent.” In another radio interview he shared “how the security forces coordinated the movement of troops and helped us move weapons. We paid them to give information and cooperate.” The memory stick of disappeared paramilitary national capo Carlos Castano that he turned over to investigators reveals secret police information and correspondence outlining political violence squarely indicting State officials. “HH” has reiterated his plan to share the “full truth” before his extradition to the United States. But will he be given opportunity “to tell the truth about why the victims’ relatives died, where the graves are, and who participated” before then? (I would love to have him over for dinner before he’s extradited.)

But HH does not describe a grizzly chapter of Colombia’s past. Important changes are underway, but paramilitary structures still exist and violence continues. This is history in the making.

One victim of the paramilitary exclaimed at church last week—“I feel like I’m being white washed from history. But look, touch me, I do exist!” (What will be history’s verdict on US intervention in these affairs?) Many more victims are arriving to the church door. Very painful.

This same Afro-Colombian victim also voiced concern about a possible third term for Colombian President Uribe, a hotly debated issue currently. Running for reelection again would mean changing the Colombian constitution for a second time. (He did so once to run for a second term, which he won handily with the help of illegal deal-making with a Member of Congress.) If he decides to run he would likely win, but what would be the political costs internationally?

A Colombian friend and pastor recently returned to her country of origin after several years in Bolivia and Costa Rica. She says this of the current political climate: “I’m so deeply discouraged and frustrated. I don’t understand my people. Why are they going along with this obvious lie? Where is this taking us? Down the wrong path, that much I’m sure.”

I opened this section noting that it’s challanging for me to provide concise, complete commentary on current situation. Violations of rights to life have gone down over the years. But is that an indicator of a sustainable, improved situation? Civil liberties have been cut, and the violence has changed forms.

We are in the midst of a high-stakes power struggle. Justapaz and others call for truth, justice and repentance (explaining the intrigue and, yes, hope inspired by HH for me personally). Yet the ruling powers aim to consolidate relationships and structures cementing status quo and the dominant economic model, turning at least some former “instruments”… “of the rich and powerful” (HH) who are bulking at movement to silence them into enemies of the powers that often direct(ed) their world.

Ok, had enough of Colombian politics for now? Do what I do now. Take a break. Laugh with Amara. This, my friends, is a healthy development. (Missed the link the first time? Click here.)

peace and hope,

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