One would think that a meeting between high-ranking officials at a U.S. embassy and representatives of a terrorist group would grab headlines nationwide. But few in the U.S. noticed last month when two major Colombian newspapers reported that on May 4, Alex Lee, the chief political officer at the U.S. embassy in Bogotá, and Stewart Tuttle, who heads the embassy’s human rights division, met with representatives of the so-called “United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia” (AUC,) a right wing paramilitary group with strong ties to the Colombian military that has terrorized dissidents and poor people in Colombia for the past decade
The U.S. State Department has officially designated the AUC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization–meaning that the meeting definitely violated the State Department’s policy of not negotiating with terrorists, and may also have violated the PATRIOT Act. An embassy official speaking on the condition of anonymity said that the meeting’s sole purpose was to reiterate the State Department’s desire to see the arrest and extradition of AUC leaders Salvatore Mancuso and Carlos Castano, who are wanted for drug trafficking in the U.S.
But this story doesn’t hold water. Would the State Department meet with representatives of Al Qaeda to remind them that it wants to see Ossama bin Laden arrested and extradited? Even that would make more sense than this meeting–bin Laden is in hiding, but Castano routinely grants interviews to the press, published a bestselling book last year, and even made a recent appearance on a talk show in which he issued veiled death threats against opponents of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. If the U.S. were really interested in arresting Castano they might suggest that the Colombian National Police consider showing up at his next media event.
The paramilitaries claim that the meeting was convened to negotiate an amnesty for Castano and Mancuso. That would be consistent with Uribe’s plan to negotiate a “peace settlement” with the AUC–a move that many speculate is a veiled attempt to legalize the paramilitaries and bring them into new roles within the government and the military.
What ever happened to fighting terrorism? According to the State Department’s 2003 Human Rights Report for Colombia, which Stewart Tuttle wrote, in 2002 the paramilitaries murdered union leaders, journalists, and human rights workers, kidnapped people, forced civilians to act as human shields, and forced entire villages off their land. The report also admitted that there is still widespread collaboration between the U.S.-backed Colombian military and the paramilitaries.
Nevertheless, the State Department concluded that the Colombian military had made sufficient progress on human rights to justify sending hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Colombia. If elements of the Saudi military were found to have links to Al Qaeda, the State Department wouldn’t give Saudi Arabia second and third chances to clean up its act. Why the double standard? Some of the answers appear in the International Monetary Fund’s [IMF] recommendations for re-shaping Colombia’s economy.
The IMF presumes that the best way for a country to improve its economy is to encourage foreign investment. Toward this end, the IMF has said that in order to continue receiving loans, Colombia needs to maintain an “austere budget” (cut social spending,) “restructure” (cut) social security and workers’ pensions, and privatize state-owned companies. This provides foreign investors with opportunities to make huge profits buying up and running the businesses the state is selling off. But in a country where over half the population lives on less than two dollars a day, these policies are eliminating the already inadequate economic safety net, and leading to massive public sector layoffs.
Coupled with the IMF policies are “free trade” agreements that allow foreign companies to dump cheap sugar, coffee, and grain on the market, driving small farmers out of business. Throughout Colombia, small farmers, teachers, utility workers, oil workers, and others are rising up to oppose these devastating economic policies. The government has been able to silence some of the leaders of these social movements by imprisoning them on false charges of aiding the leftist guerillas who are trying to overthrow the government and by suspending union organizers from work and requiring them to receive “counseling” to make them more docile. But the paramilitaries do what the government can’t get away with–murder, threaten, and disappear dissidents.
So the U.S. looks the other way while the Colombian government makes a devil’s bargain with the paramilitaries to maintain order at any cost. Apparently terrorism is okay as long as it helps corporate bottom lines. And in light of this, State Department meetings with terrorists aren’t really news at all.
SEAN DONAHUE directs the Corporations and Militarism Project for the Massachusetts Anti-Corporate Clearinghouse in Lawrence, MA. He recently returned from his third fact-finding trip to Colombia with Witness for Peace. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.