Some of us hoped, but there was no change. Even under Obama, it seems, the U.S. government struggles to distinguish between the Colombian terrorists, drug traffickers and political dissidents. Last week, the victim was Colombian journalist Hollman Morris. Morris, one of twelve journalists participating in Harvard University’s prestigious Nieman Fellowship program, had his application for a U.S. visa denied, apparently due to suspicions of terrorist activities.
In some ways, this is hardly surprising. Morris has a long history of problems with the authorities, mainly because he is one of few prominent journalists willing to investigate the Colombian government’s ties to paramilitary groups. President Uribe has publicly insulted Morris on more than one occasion and even called him “an accomplice to terrorism.” (Of course, despite repeated efforts, the government has never proven any links between Morris and terrorist groups.) Moreover, after the September 11 attacks, there is nothing at all shocking about a foreigner – especially a Colombian – having his or her visa request unjustly denied.
But what makes Morris’s case perplexing is that he is a famous journalist whom many high-ranking American officials hold in high esteem. Not too long ago, for example, Morris visited the U.S. and met with Dan Restrepo, the U.S. National Security Council’s top official for Western Hemisphere affairs, to discuss human rights abuses in Colombia. Several high-ranking State Department officials are fans of Morris and have called his work “courageous.”
So what explains the U.S. government’s rejection of Morris’ visa request? One possible explanation is that it was merely a mistake somewhere along the bureaucratic assembly line that manages American visa applications. His professional history is certainly prone to such misinterpretation by foreign officials. For example, Morris is known to have maintained contact with FARC guerrillas while reporting on Colombia’s armed conflict. On the other hand, the fact that Morris has been granted U.S. visas many times before raises the question of why this time was different.
Perhaps the answer has something to do with Colombian government’s rapidly intensifying campaign to discredit Morris. Having been called an accomplice to terrorism by the most U.S.-friendly president in the Americas is probably not a good thing when applying for an American visa. In fact, given that Colombia is among the most dangerous countries on earth for journalists, a visa denial is probably among the mildest things that could have resulted from Uribe’s baseless accusations.
Although Uribe’s public spat with Morris probably had some indirect influence on his visa application process, a more likely direct culprit is the Administrative Security Department (DAS in its Spanish acronym). Colombia’s infamously corrupt intelligence agency has a long, well-documented history of harassing and illegally monitoring critics of the government. Moreover, the DAS has the ability to spread information around the international intelligence community. American NGO Human Rights Watch has already accused the DAS of playing a direct role in the denial of Morris’s visa, and some recently revealed documents do indeed reveal an active DAS campaign to tarnish Morris’s reputation.
That Uribe and the DAS are treating innocent domestic critics as terrorists is nothing new. What is most worrying about Morris’s case is the fact that the U.S. government remains susceptible to such nonsense. As mentioned above, many high-ranking U.S. officials see Morris as a courageous journalist, not a terrorist sympathizer. Nevertheless, the denial of his visa request reveals a huge gap in attitudes and perceptions between the upper echelons State Department and the White House on the one hand and American security agencies on the other.
The most prominent recent example of this fragmentation was the public relations debacle surrounding an agreement to allow the American military to use several Colombian military bases. Soon after the deal was revealed, Colombia’s neighbors expressed concerns about the apparent secrecy of the deal. When top American diplomats struggled to explain their country’s plans for the bases, it became clear that the U.S.’s military leadership and its diplomatic corps were not on the same page about what the agreement consisted of and what its purpose was.
The root problem behind this fragmentation is the Obama administration’s failure to define its stance on Colombia policy. On the one hand, the president and his top appointees seem to be more cautious and skeptical of the Uribe government than was the Bush administration. As a candidate, for example, Obama expressed reservations about a free trade agreement with Colombia due to the country’s high murder rate for union members. The administration’s top officials dealing with U.S.-Latin America relations, including Mr. Restrepo, also seem more willing to sit down and listen to some of Uribe’s harshest critics, like Morris.
On the other hand, the current administration is also sending clear messages of continuity from the Bush years. During and following Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to Colombia, top American officials have showered Uribe and his soon-to-be replacement Juan Manuel Santos with praise and confirmed the strength of U.S.-Colombia relations. The rejection of Morris’s visa application is illustrative of the fact that the opinions of the Colombian government, even if they have no proven basis in fact, can still influence the behavior of the American government.
As a result, on a number of key issues – from the free trade agreement to human rights to whether Hollman Morris is a terrorist or a courageous journalist – the highly fragmented U.S. government is sending incoherent, contradictory messages. The new administration’s vision for relations with Colombia remains unclear and time will tell how Juan Manuel Santos’s election will fit into this confusing picture. In the meantime, we can only hope that growing pressure from journalists’ groups, human rights activists and Harvard University will lead the U.S. government to rescind its rejection of Morris’ visa application.