Imagine your local newspaper publishing a profile of a Venezuelan military general staunchly loyal to that country’s president, Hugo Chavez Frías. Now try to imagine that report lacking a single unflattering point about the general or Ch·vez. If you’re having trouble, it’s no surprise. Any decent editor would recognize such a piece as leftist propaganda and hit the delete button.
So why did the Associated Press profile Colombia’s new Army chief, Gen. Reinaldo Castellanos, without mentioning any criticism of him or of the nation’s president, Alvaro Uribe Vélez? And why did news outlets across the United States–from the Miami Herald to the Seattle Post Intelligencer, from ABC News to MSNBC–publish this rightwing propaganda?
After interviewing Castellanos, named to the post November 10, AP reporter Juan Pablo Toro apparently never questioned the general’s claim that “the Colombian government is winning in its offensive against Marxist rebels,” as Toro’s first paragraph paraphrased it the next day. The 670-word story, rather, provided Castellanos a soapbox and lionized Uribe, who won the presidency in 2002 after slamming efforts to negotiate with the guerrillas and promising to rout them on the battlefield. Like many reporters in Colombia, Toro left the impression that a U.S.-backed military offensive and Uribe’s authoritarian policies have devastated the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest guerrilla group.
The story ignores compelling evidence to the contrary. Colombia’s most respected military analyst, Alfredo Rangel Súrez, says the 17,000-strong FARC is merely biding its time until the offensive runs out of steam. Rangel’s Security and Democracy Foundation, based in Bogot·, reported last month that the FARC mounted 900 attacks during Uribe’s first two years in office–nearly as many as the 907 it mounted during the preceding four-year term of President Andrés Pastrana Arrango. “It’s essential not to lose sight of the kind of war the FARC is carrying out,” the foundation report concludes. “This kind of war does not seek to openly confront the Armed Forces but rather to exhaust them.”
And, typical of U.S. reporting, Toro’s piece pays little attention to the war’s history and doesn’t even mention Colombia’s paramilitaries–the government-aligned forces responsible for most of the conflict’s civilian casualties and a large share of the country’s drug production.
Given what the hemisphere’s largest newswire dishes out, it’s hard to blame folks in the United States for their apathy about military aid to Colombia.
PHILLIP CRYAN writes the Media column for Colombia Week, where this article first appeared. In 2002 and 2003, Cryan did human rights work in Colombia. Next year Common Courage Press will publish News From the Southern Front, a book he is writing about the impacts of recent U.S. intervention in the country.
He lives in Ames, Iowa, and can be reached at: email@example.com