A hearing held at the US House of Representatives on Thursday produced a number of contrasting ideas about the success of US policy toward Colombia.
The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hosted the panel to hear from witnesses about the ongoing peace process between the Colombian government and the country’s largest rebel group FARC. They also heard about land restitution, labor rights and the state of affairs for indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities.
Adam Isacson, from the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), described this as an “exciting but frightening time for Colombia.” He said that it was exciting that there was a chance for peace thanks to the ongoing talks with the FARC in Havana, Cuba, but frightening because peace is by no means guaranteed.
He noted that the talks are almost a year old – they began on November 18, 2012 – and despite being in their 16th round, there have been only two agreements, on issues concerning land reform.
Dr. Virginia M. Bouvier, Senior Program Officer for Latin America at the United States Institute of Peace, called the agreement on land reform “historic,” and agreed with Isacson that the process was vulnerable. She added that she believed that the government should strive to include Colombia’s second-largest rebel group ELN in the talks.
There was significant divergence in opinion over the effect of US military assistance to Colombia. The first speaker from the U.S. State Department, William Duncan, Director of Andean Affairs, spoke glowingly about the successes of military assistance programs like Plan Colombia, through which the US has offered military, logistical, and financial aid to Colombia since 2000 in an attempt to curb drug smuggling and production in Colombia, as well as combating guerrillas.
“In the 13 years since the United States have been giving support and in subsequent initiatives, Colombia has indeed made significant advances on security, the fight against illicit drugs and protecting human rights,” said Duncan.
By contrast, Jomary Ortegon, of the Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective, spoke at length about armed groups in Colombia and their links to the US-backed Colombian military. She said that there needs to be a complete purge from the Colombian military of paramilitary influence.
“We believe, having worked hand in hand with the victims, that what is needed is to purge all of the intelligence archives, especially those that relate to social leaders,” said Ortegon, adding that her organization was pushing for a complete dismantlement of the paramilitary sectors at the political and economic level.
Plan Colombia was also discussed in the context of multinational mega-projects. Liliana Avila, a human rights attorney with the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission, spoke about how the militarization facilitated by Plan Colombia has aided human rights violations and displacement by multinational companies throughout the country.
Avila pointed to the links between paramilitary groups, sectors within the government and multinational corporate interests, and the manner in which displacement is used by these economic interests as a way of gaining land.
She said that the problem particularly affected the country’s indigenous communities, who often live on resource-rich lands that have belonged to the community for centuries, land that is coveted by private companies. “We have direct evidence that these [private] companies continue to operate in collusion with paramilitaries and that those paramilitaries collude with some sectors of the Colombian government.”
“Government initiatives seek to address historic wrongs”
In introducing the event, Massachusetts Representative Jim McGovern talked about some recent proposals developed by the Colombian government over the last few years, including the peace talks with the FARC, the Labor Action, and the framework for delivering military justice (which was struck down by the Colombian Constitutional Court struck down this week on procedural grounds).
“Each of these initiatives seeks to address historic wrongs that have resulted in violence, major human rights crimes, and humanitarian crises,” he said. “Each faces daunting challenges and each raises new questions about how Colombia will address peace, justice, respect for human rights, reparations for victims of violence, development, equity and reconciliation.”
“Many promises have been made or implied but the proof is in how these initiatives move forward and how they are implemented and whether they change for the better the reality on the ground, especially for those who have been victims of violence, prejudice or discrimination.”