An inconvenient truth: the real Colombia


President Santos by World Economic Forum

Juan Manuel Santos. Photo by World Economic Forum under a CC Licence.

I’ve been reading with interest the coverage of Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos’ first-ever visit to Britain. ‘How wonderful and mutually beneficial to boost ties with one of Latin America’s fastest-growing economies!’; ‘How progressive to begin a debate on the legalization of drugs!’; ‘What a modern and accomplished leader – who is changing the face of Colombia!’ Such are the conclusions that one may draw from the current media coverage.

In the words of British Prime Minister David Cameron: ‘It is a great pleasure to welcome President Santos to the UK at such a pivotal moment in our bilateral relationship, and with Colombia embarking on many positive reforms... President Santos has shown his determination to transform Colombia... I would encourage Colombia to continue its progress in prosecuting those involved in human rights abuses and in showing a new, more progressive country to the world.’

Right. Would that ‘progress’ be the 2 per cent prosecution rate of the 54 murders of human rights defenders, trade unionists and community organizers killed during Santos’ first year in office – the highest number at any time in Colombia’s history?  Is this ‘new, more progressive country’ the same one whose military continues to kill civilians, then dress them up in guerrilla clothing to boost their success rate?

Perhaps it’s the ‘transformed Colombia’ that visited the Inter-American Court of Human Rights this week to demand it revoke a 2005 judgment requiring the government to pay compensation to victims of a 1997 massacre, carried out by paramilitaries in collaboration with the army?

Following the admission by one of the victim’s relatives that she lied in her testimony, Colombia’s Prosecutor General carried out a fresh investigation in which it concluded that only 10 people – not 49 as estimated in the ruling – could be confirmed dead. It extrapolated from that that ONLY 10 people had died, and the rest of the alleged victims’ families – and their lawyers – were shameless money grabbers. The court and lawyers pointed out that 1) the fact that the victims had been chopped up and thrown in a river made them rather hard to identify; 2) the paramilitary leader who led the attack publicly admitted to killing at least 49 people and 3) information about the number of people who had died was originally provided by the government itself. I particularly enjoyed Defence Minister Juan Carlos Esguerra’s recent quote on the matter: ‘Of course we won’t deny that a grave massacre took place – but a massacre with 12 deaths is one thing and a massacre with 50 false victims is another.’

I don’t want to discount Santos’ progress. He has indeed made some excellent strides in the right direction – most notably the creation of the Victims' Law, which seeks to restore land to displaced people and compensate victims of the armed conflict. It also recognizes state complicity in human rights abuses. His new dialogue of peace and reconciliation is a welcome break from the war rhetoric of his predecessor Alvaro Uribe, who has become increasingly alienated from his former ally.

But the facts remain. Colombia is still the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist, with unionist murders continuing to rise and unionization levels dramatically falling during 2010, Santos’ first year in office (a fact the US chose to ignore as it finally ratified the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement last month; there had been years of delays because of concerns about human rights and working conditions, but I guess they got impatient). Colombia continues to suffer the second-highest population of internally displaced people in the world, after Sudan – 286,000 were displaced by paramilitaries last year. Nearly half the population lives in poverty and Colombia holds sixth place on the list of the world’s most unequal countries.

Santos may be talking the talk now, but as defence minister under Uribe he followed a hard-line policy, responsible for a tough military assault against the FARC which won plaudits for its success lowering kidnap and murder rights, but criticism for doing so at the expense of any human rights concerns. The ‘false positive’ scandal mentioned earlier, in which it was revealed the military had inflated their ‘kill rate’ by murdering thousands of civilians and dressing them up as combatants, also broke under his tenure.

It may be convenient for bilateral trade to accept Colombia as a ‘new, more progressive country’, and celebrate its progress in prosecuting human rights abuses,  but it’s a disingenuous narrative that dismisses the ongoing suffering of a population  – and insults those endangering their lives fighting for justice.

Miriam Wells writes for Colombia Reports.

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