Tuesday, May 01, 2007

One Righteous Gringo

April 30, 2007

Al Gore may not have known that he was taking the side of a former terrorist and ally of Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez when he waded into Colombian politics 10 days ago. But that's not much consolation to 45 million Colombians who watched their country's already fragile international image suffer another unjust blow, this time at the hands of a former U.S. vice president.
The event was a climate-change conference in Miami, where Mr. Gore and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe were set to share the stage. At the last minute, Mr. Gore notified the conference organizers that he refused to appear with Mr. Uribe because of "deeply troubling" allegations of human- rights violations swirling around the Colombian government.
It is not clear whether the ex-veep knows that making unsubstantiated claims of human-rights violations has been a key guerrilla weapon for more than a decade, along with the more traditional practices of murdering, maiming and kidnapping civilians. Nor is it clear whether Mr. Gore knew that the recycled charges that caught his attention are being hyped by Colombian Sen. Gustavo Petro, a close friend of Mr. Chávez and former member of the pro-Cuban M-19 terrorist group. What we do know is that Mr. Gore's line of reasoning -- that Colombia is not good enough to rub shoulders with the righteous gringos -- is also being peddled by some Democrats in Congress, the AFL-CIO and other forces of anti-globalization. The endgame is all about killing the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.
When Mr. Uribe got wind of Mr. Gore's decision to stand him up, he rightly interpreted its significance: Colombia is the victim of an international smear campaign that, if left unchecked, could undermine congressional support for the pending trade deal. Rather than let the whispering go on, Mr. Uribe elevated the matter, calling two press conferences over two days to refute the charges, which he says are damaging the country's interests. He also asked Mr. Gore to look "at Colombia closely" so he could see the progress that has been made.
The truth about Colombia's bloody struggle against criminal networks is not hard to discern. The tragedy originated more than five decades ago with ideological rebel warfare and was long supported by Fidel Castro. After Pablo Escobar was killed in 1993 and the Medellin and Cali drug cartels collapsed in the mid-1990s, the guerrillas moved into the narcotrafficking business and used this new source of financing to heighten the terror.
Mary Anastasia O'Grady discusses the implications of Al Gore's diplomatic "dis" of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
In a December 2001 monograph published by The Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, Latin American insurgency and counterinsurgency expert David Spencer described the costs of the guerillas' "predatory business": "The federation of cattle ranchers reported that in 1997 they suffered losses of $750 million, largely to guerrilla theft and extortion. The consequences of resisting these extortive taxes is severe and includes kidnapping, death, and destruction of property." As Mr. Spencer explained, the urban rich avoided much of the terrorism; the vulnerable were the "small, independent farmers, ranchers, professionals, and merchants."
Lacking resources and a plan of action, the state did little to protect innocents. So the rural population organized self-defense units that became known as paramilitaries. Many of these groups later morphed into criminal enterprises.
Mr. Uribe, whose father was murdered by guerrillas, was elected governor of the state of Antioquia in 1995. He inherited a mess. "Guerrillas were all over the state," he told me in a 1997 interview in Medellin. "They were kidnapping, drug trafficking, keeping illegal plantations. Against them were the paramilitary. Wherever guerrillas arrived in one place, sooner or later paramilitary arrived there too, committing many similar crimes."
To confront the chaos, the governor made increasing the presence of the state a priority and launched the "convivirs." These legal civic organizations were citizens' intelligence networks designed to help the army and police identify and pursue guerrillas, paramilitary groups, narcotraffickers and common criminals in the countryside.
It was later learned that some of the convivirs had links to paramilitaries. This shouldn't be surprising since both groups shared a common enemy. But to the extent that such collusion existed, one can hardly blame it on Mr. Uribe. The concept of engaging the public in helping to strengthen the state's law-enforcement capabilities is a perfectly defensible strategy. Of course, the guerrillas didn't like it. They suffered major setbacks while Antioquian peasants, farmers, ranchers, banana workers and rural weekenders all enjoyed newfound security.
Mr. Uribe ran for president in 2002 on a promise to defeat organized crime. He has produced impressive results. According to national police statistics, homicides dropped to 17,277 in 2006 from 28,837 in 2002. Kidnappings fell to 687 from 2,883 over the same period and terrorist attacks were cut by more than two-thirds. Since 2002, some 42,000 illegally armed combatants have put down their weapons and 1,342 paramilitary have been killed.
As to charges against his former intelligence chief, based mainly on the testimony of one rather dubious witness, the justice system is working. It is in no need of Mr. Gore's condescending prejudice.
Though Colombia is not yet pacified, voters have confidence in Mr. Uribe. The economy has recovered and the government is working to protect the environment against the degradation caused by coca growers destroying forests and cocaine labs polluting rivers. There is also a special program to provide security for members of labor unions. Mr. Uribe was re-elected last year and today maintains an approval rating of better than 70%.
Mr. Uribe's popularity is a source of much frustration for his adversaries, especially as the FTA -- considered his baby -- gains momentum. Colombians widely favor the deal and it is now sailing through the legislature. Thus the export of the tired, old allegations of human-rights violations from Mr. Petro. How ironic that Colombia's anti-American hard-left, normally obsessed with trashing Uncle Sam, is now rushing to Washington to get help in defeating the will of its own people.
Mr. Uribe will be in Washington this week to meet with members of Congress and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney to make his case for the FTA. In the end, it may turn out that Mr. Gore did him a favor by bringing this subject to the fore. Union activists who don't want any more U.S. free trade agreements have every right to lobby against them. But they should make their case on facts, not on politically motivated and unsubstantiated charges.

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