Since Alvaro Uribe was elected president in 2002, he has counted on the virtually unconditional support of the American government. For the most part, the American media has been similarly favorable to Mr. Uribe. Most American news reports on Colombia have focused on Uribe’s notable successes, such as the liberation of the FARC guerrilla’s most prominent hostages, including three Americans, in 2008. By contrast, the president’s newsworthy shortcomings, namely his inability to stem human rights abuses and corruption in Colombia, have gone largely unreported in the American press. Despite Uribe’s staunch conservatism and hard-line security policies, even the U.S.’s leading liberal newspapers, the Washington Post and the New York Times, have been quite kind to the president. Both papers generally support, for example, the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement, which many human rights and labor groups oppose partly because of continued violence against union leaders during Uribe’s eight years in office.
It was therefore surprising that, this week, two prominent American media outlets – the Washington Post and the Huffington Post, a liberal online newspaper – published pieces that directly attacked the integrity of the outgoing president’s government and family. The former printed an extensive story centered on accusations by a former police official that Uribe’s brother Santiago led a paramilitary group in the town of Yarumal, where the family had business interests, in the early 1990s. The accuser, Juan Carlos Meneses, had previously admitted that he collaborated with that paramilitary group, which was known as “The Twelve Apostles.” Years ago, Colombian officials investigated the Apostles, but nobody in the Uribe family was convicted. The president, his brother and some of his allies have since rejected the story and have suggested that it is part of a paramilitary plot to discredit the government.
On the Huffington Post website, which has an explicit liberal stance but which had previously reported only rarely on Colombia, American human rights lawyer Dan Kovalik published an opinion piece that suggested links between the Colombian Embassy in Washington and recent paramilitary death threats sent to American NGOs. His piece discussed the fact that the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human rights group based in the American capital, received death threats from a supposed neo-paramilitary group the day after some WOLA representatives had met with embassy officials to discuss threats against human rights defenders in Colombia. WOLA noted the strange coincidence in a press release on its website, but has since edited it to eliminate any suggestion of a link between the embassy and the “Aguilas Negras” (Black Eagles). Nevertheless, Kovalik’s opinion piece in the Huffington Post remains unchanged.
The timing of this negative press, especially the Washington Post article, is obviously meant to roughly coincide with Colombia’s upcoming elections. But why are media outlets that previously paid very little attention to political, security and human rights problems in Colombia suddenly changing their tone now and not at previous political crossroads such as 2006 Colombian elections or the 2008 American elections?
One reason may be that, in recent months, Uribe himself has done plenty of damage to his global reputation. Much of the foreign press, for example, opposed his potential run for an unprecedented third term on the basis that it would hurt Colombia’s democratic institutions. By refusing to rule out another run for office until his political supporters had tried every legal and political maneuver to make a third term possible, Uribe may have fallen out of favor with the American media. Still, most newspapers around that time treated Uribe as an admirable leader, and argued that running for a third term would tarnish his impressive legacy. In other words, there was little mention of Uribe’s shortcomings.
So why, in the past week, has the American media suddenly become aware of the Uribe government’s mixed record on human rights and social issues? Perhaps it is the Mockus effect. The media-friendly Green Party candidate’s intriguing political platform, which places a heavy emphasis on the country’s social and human rights problems, is drawing unprecedented international attention to those areas where the Uribe government’s performance was mixed at best. In other words, without necessarily meaning to do so, Mockus is achieving what domestic and foreign activists have been attempting to do for years: he is showing the world the unsavory underside of Uribe’s transformation of Colombia into a more stable and business-friendly country. With the first round of voting just days away, the bigger question is whether the American media’s new tone will affect voters’ preferences in image-conscious Colombia.