Colombia's New President: Bombs Away
From the looks of things at his inauguration, it is going to take a lot to shore up Alvaro Uribe, the new Colombian President, although a line-up of neighboring presidents, including our own, is prepared to try. On Wednesday, August 7, many of the hemisphere’s Biggest Shots sashayed into the Capitol in Bogotá, including: the President of Peru, who late last year managed to slide out from under certain embarrassing cocaine and patrimony charges;, the President of Panama, who’s still trying to figure out how 24 containers of AK-47s supposedly purchased by her police force showed up instead in a Colombian port addressed to the death squads, and labeled “plastic balls;” the President of Venezuela, who has either gained a lot of weight or was wearing a flak jacket; and the President of Argentina, who managed to be the only head of state in the impoverished Southern Cone to meet personally with Paul O’Neill and come away with zero, zip, nada. Also present, of course, were the Armed Forces, the Ambassador from the United States, the Prince of Asturias, representing the royal family of Spain, and the Holy See. Plus more rich people than will typically gather in one place at one time in Bogotá. A number of Colombia’s own ex-Presidents also turned up, still alive, despite the bumbling inefficiency of the Colombian security forces. The only one missing was the outgoing President, Andrés Pastrana, who had the good grace to leave the country.
The event also required the presence of 14,000 Armed Forces personnel and U.S. air cover: ground forces wearing gold helmets and armed with swords held the 200-meter stretch from the Plaza de Armas (literally, Weapons Square) to the Capitol, and yanqui airplanes secured the skies. Authorities closed down the airport, the city center, and all commercial radio and television transmission until the ordeal was over.
Just before three in the afternoon, About-to-be-President Uribe left the Palace of San Carlos and piled into a black bullet-proof van with his wife and sons. As heavily armed men ran alongside, the vehicle glided down the street to the Capitol, where it came to a stop at a red carpet roll and the Presidential family disembarked, ascended a long set of broad marble steps, and greeted a grinning Senator graciously waiting up top. While proceeding into the Elliptical Chamber, a number of people spoke to Uribe, shook his hand, slapped his back, or kissed him. From there on, it wasn’t exactly clear what happened when, but apparently the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the FARC) picked the moment when the President of the Senate invested Uribe with the Presidential sash (reading “Liberty and Order”) to shell the Capitol with mortars. Only of course they missed by about half a mile and hit a neighborhood full of poor people, killing 20 or so of them, injuring about 50 more, and thus winning the With-Friends-Like-That-Who-Needs-Enemies Award for 2002.
People inside the Chamber said later that they heard the rockets, but thought it was a 21-gun salute for Uribe, who now sat nervously, draped in the red, blue, and gold Presidential sash like a beauty queen waiting for the talent program to begin. At some point during the proceedings, an attendant apparently told Uribe and his wife that a nearby neighborhood had just been reduced to smithereens and that the police were presently collecting body parts and searching for the mystery rocket launchers, which had to be around here somewhere. The highly confidential information imparted swiftly inside the Capitol accounts for the unbecoming fact that Uribe behaved like a hunted squirrel throughout his inauguration, his eyes flickering left and right and up and down. Sitting behind him and staring into the middle distance was his wife, her face a ghastly white. Of course, your face would be too if you thought that you, your family and 500 of your most intimate friends were about to be incinerated by the gang that couldn’t bomb straight. Apparently unaware of the chaos outside, the Senator in charge then launched into a lengthy speech about the first new Colombian president of the century, a new era for Colombia, blah-blah-blah, democracy and discipline and blah-blah-blah.
You have got to wonder about someone who wants to be President badly enough to put up with this kind of thing. Normal people under these circumstances would grab the wife and kids and get the hell out of there. Not Uribe. He waited patiently, if anxiously, through the whole dreadful bloviation, and then stood to do a performance of his own.
Considering the carnage down the street, the speech was a little off. The incoming President spoke of the dawn of a new era: unity, authority, law and order, an end to violence and corruption, strong, institutionalized political parties, and an effective fight against poverty. Also free trade, fiscal equilibrium, and better coffee prices. A couple of times when he mentioned either stomping out guerrillas or making more money, the crowd enthusiastically applauded. As he finished, Uribe received his first Presidential briefing from Fernando Tapias, outgoing Commander of the Armed Forces: 14 dead, 46 injured. During the night, the numbers continued to rise.
During his speech, however, Uribe warned that he and his ministers came not to work miracles but simply to work, and by 6:15 that evening he had sworn in all his cronies. They are not a promising bunch, and altogether they suggest more of the same only a bit worse, rather than the new era of hard work we’ve been hearing so much about.
First of all, Uribe himself has strong links to the narcos through his campaign manager and former chief of staff, Pedro Juan Moreno Villa, the owner of GMP Chemical Products of Medellín. Between 1995 and 1998, while Uribe was the Governor of Antioquía in its capital of Medellín, GMP was the largest Colombian importer of potassium permanganate, a “precursor chemical” necessary to process cocaine. Uribe and Moreno point out that the chemical also has legitimate uses, such as the manufacture of printed circuit boards, but these are not really a pillar of the Colombian economy. Not like cocaine. The whole story came out in 1998 when the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency seized an unreported shipment of 50,000 kilos of the chemical bound for GMP, enough to process cocaine with a street value of $15 billion.
Heading up the rest of the crew is the new Minister of Interior and Justice, Fernando Londoño. He may be distracted from time to time during his tenure by the multi-million-dollar lawsuit pending against him for fraudulently buying shares in the state oil company at reduced prices by pretending to be an eligible employee when he was not.
Then there’s the death squad connection of the hardworking new government: Uribe’s choice as the Commander of the Army, Carlos Alberto Ospina Ovalle, a graduate of the School of the Americas. Predictably, General Ospina has worked closely with the death squads formerly commanded by Carlos Castaño, according to Human Rights Watch. Among other things, Ospina was responsible for a 1997 massacre, when soldiers under his command maintained a perimeter around the town of El Aro while a death squad executed at least 11 people, including three children, burned 47 of the 68 houses, a pharmacy, a church, and the telephone exchange, looted stores, destroyed water pipes, and forced most of the residents to flee. Nice Guy.
For the Ministry of the Treasury, Uribe swore in Roberto Junguito Bonnet, who represented Colombia at the International Monetary Fund during the tiresome old era of former President Pastrana, served as a member of the Board of the Central Bank under ex-Presidents Gaviria and Samper, and as the Treasury Minister under former President Betancur. As might be expected, Junguito sees his own most pressing new-era challenge as obtaining the extension of Colombia’s agreement with the IMF, which he negotiated when he worked there. To accomplish this, he plans to appropriate extraordinary powers for the President, fire government workers, and tax the middle class into destitution.
At the Ministry of Labor and Health, Juan Luis Londoño now presides, whose resume includes time spent at the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, as well as in the government of ex-President Gaviria. We know what we can expect from him: the promise of a huge number of crappy pick-and-shovel jobs, privatized health care, and a cheapskate privatized pension system that doesn’t work. Sure enough, in his first post-inauguration announcement, he promised all eligible Colombian seniors pensions of US$ 500 a year, a figure $230 below the official poverty line.
Speaking of pensions, the new Minister of Trade, Jorge Humberto Botero, is the former president of the association of fund management companies that benefits from the astonishingly stingy and non-functional system. An adviser to ex-President Barco, his first challenge will be to convince our own President that Colombia should benefit from tariff preferences, despite its battle over $62 million with a U.S. energy company for reasons involving too much complicated corruption on both sides to explain here (See T.O. 4/13/01).
Andrés Uriel Gallego now serves as the Minister of Transportation. He’s a long-time friend of Uribe’s and held the post of Public Works Secretary in the state of Antioquía while Uribe was Governor there. Uriel Gallego is Uribe’s Mini-Me, frequently parroting the new President. Lately he’s been pushing the sale of tunnel and highway concessions under the Roads for Peace Program.
In fact, politicians and Army men in Colombia describe almost everything as “For Peace.” There are Roads for Peace, Helicopters for Peace, Bazookas for Peace, Informers for Peace, Peace for Peace… With so much Peace stuff, it seems odd that the whole country’s at war and has been for 50 years, but there you are. The explanation for this semantic twist is simple: If you say something’s for peace, you can get U.S. money for it, but if you say it’s for war, you can’t. Yet.
Under the Bush administration this is about to change: The U.S. Congress is poised to bankroll its favorite Colombian gang with more taxpayer money, even as Uribe and his team set up compulsory informant networks, a tactic that turns civilians into military targets, and declare a state of siege that suspends most civil rights for at least 90 days due to the internal “commotion.” Between the narco-president and the death squad army, it’s pretty hard to make a compelling argument for getting more mixed up in this. But the new Minister of Defense, Marta Lucia Ramirez, is going to try. She’s in charge of begging the United States for more money in exchange for “professionalizing” the Armed Forces. Where have we heard this before? With Diem in Vietnam? With Duarte in El Salvador? Any place Henry Kissinger ever set foot and passed his expert assessments on to Nixon, Ford, and Reagan.
Hey, maybe we could use a new era too, here in the U.S. The long-term strategy of financing and ‘training’ the same old kleptos, narcos, armies, and death squads who compulsively slice up peasants and stuff trade unionists down latrines is just not working. That doesn’t seem to matter to the people in charge, though. As soon as you see Henry Kissinger starting to visit the Sunday morning news shows, you know that any real change of era is not bloody likely.
Gabriela Bocagrande is a Writer for Peace based in Washington, D.C.