Colombia’s government is indirectly encouraging attacks against labor leaders by allowing a presidential advisor to link the victims to leftist rebels, says a letter signed by 63 members of U.S. Congress.
The protest reinforces opposition to a free trade deal bottled up by U.S. House leaders concerned about human rights abuses in the Andean country.
Jose Obdulio Gaviria, adviser to conservative President Alvaro Uribe, has come under fire from the opposition for suggesting a March 6 rally against right-wing violence was organized by guerrillas fighting a decades-old insurrection.
“Gaviria’s remarks contribute to the threatening climate in which the physical safety and work of a broad spectrum of human rights defenders, trade unionists and civic leaders have been put at risk,” says the letter, released on Tuesday and signed by 62 Democrats and one Republican.
Four union members were assassinated around the time of the march, according to human rights groups, while dozens more were targets of threats and nonfatal attacks.
“Those who committed these crimes must be prosecuted,” the letter says. “We urge you to reject statements made by Mr. Gaviria and reaffirm your government’s commitment to the protection of human rights defenders.”
The government says it has dramatically cut violence since Uribe was first elected in 2002 and stepped up protection of people targeted by illegal armed groups operating in Colombia.
Democratic House leaders are holding up Colombia’s trade deal, citing anti-union attacks. The White House is lobbying hard for the pact as a way of supporting Uribe, Washington’s main ally in left-tilting South America.
Colombia is in a war involving Marxist rebels and far-right paramilitaries, both branded terrorists by Washington and funded by the country’s cocaine trade. Thousands are killed in the conflict every year.
Uribe has a popularity rating of over 80 percent thanks to his U.S.-backed crackdown on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which holds hundreds of hostages including French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt.