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Colombia’s Uribe soaks up the glory of Betancourt’s release

By Rodrigo Acuña - posted Tuesday, 5 August 2008


The recent rescue of Colombian-French national Ingrid Betancourt, and three US military contractors, has been another media coup by Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Vélez against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

With US Republican and presidential candidate John McCain in the South American country at the time, Uribe’s move was almost perfect. Prior to his visit, McCain called Uribe’s Colombia a “beacon of hope in a region where the Castro brothers, [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chávez, and others are actively seeking to thwart economic progress and democracy”.

Of course the real Colombia under Uribe, which has received over US$5 billion in aid from Washington since 2002, does not even remotely resemble the country McCain attempts to portray.

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For a start, Uribe’s own links to the paramilitaries and drug cartels are well known and have been documented by many observers.

On March 25, 2002, Newsweek published an article where Joseph Contreras questioned Uribe on his shady past. The questions were so direct the then presidential candidate became enraged and walked out on the interview.

According to a 1991 report by US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) officials in Colombia, Uribe was considered a "close personal friend of Pablo Escobar" who was "dedicated to collaboration with the Medellín [drug] cartel at high government levels". Escobar, until he was gunned down in 1993, was in charge of a vast cocaine empire and fundamental in establishing the country’s right-wing death squads.

Fast forward to mid-2008 and it was Colombia’s Supreme Court which further revealed who runs the country. This time, what was put into question was the legality of Uribe’s government since "the initiative to amend the constitution”, which allowed him to run for re-election in 2006, “was flawed by criminal acts".

This is the latest scandal after Uribe’s own cousin Mario Uribe Escobar - a long time political advisor to the President - was arrested and charged with ties to paramilitary groups. Uribe Escobar is just one of 33 national political representatives currently incarcerated on similar charges while another 52 are also under investigation. To this date, a third of Colombia’s legislature who has some type of ties to Uribe is under investigation or already imprisoned.

On the issue of human rights, according to the Washington Office on Latin America, 28 trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia this year while other sources put the number at about 500 since Uribe took over in 2002. Amnesty International notes (PDF KB) that:

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Despite repeated government claims that paramilitaries are no longer active in Colombia, it is clear that they continue to operate, often with the support and acquiescence of the security forces, and to threaten and kill human rights defenders and other activists who they repeatedly label as guerrilla sympathizers or auxiliaries

As a detailed story in the magazine Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting has documented, the US press has largely remained silent (or tried to put the best spin on) issues of corruption and human rights abuses under Uribe’s government in order to support a free trade deal between the US and Colombia.

Recently, even Uribe’s sanctioned military operation, which along with Betancourt freed 14 other hostages, has come under suspicion with allegations made that the government paid $US20 million to the rebels for the release of their captives.

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About the Author

Rodrigo Acuña is a PhD candidate in International Studies at Macquarie University, Sydney. A recipient of Benchmark Prize in Hispanic Studies by the University of New South Wales, he was also runner up for Open Prose in the Unsweetened 2007 Literary Journal. He writes regularly on Latin American affairs and has presented seminars at various Australian universities on political developments in Venezuela, as well as other Latin American countries.

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