Washington and the Colombian Elections

There is an anecdote circulating in Washington. It is about a meeting between the Colombian foreign minister Bermudez and the president of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, senator John Kerry. It was the dawn of the Obama administration. It was a rough meeting. Senator Kerry made clear to Bermudez that there was a new game in town and that scandals such as the euphemistically called false positives - the kidnapping and killing of almost 2000 innocent young men by members of the Army - would not be tolerated. Colombian officials present at the meeting paled, and Bermudez kept his gaze fixed at the floor. In Bogota, the perception is that with the Obama administration the mood in Washington changed dramatically. Gone were the days of great cultural and political tuning between Uribe and Bush. Gone the days in which glorious reports reached the desks of the State Department and the Pentagon. For Washington's changed attitude, in Colombia many blame the democrats and Obama himself. There is no doubt, that the message in Washington changed since Obama is at the White House, but not just for Colombia. And yes, this administration--though slow in defining a coherent policy towards Latin America--is putting greater emphasis on human rights and the role of the judiciary. But this is not the main, or at least, the only reason why the relationship between Bogota and Washington got colder over the last year. A lot has to do with the scandals of the false positives and the illegal wiretappings and death threats and the killings of human rights activists engineered by the Colombian secrete service, the DAS, which depends directly from the president's office. Recent statements by former members of the paramilitary about extra judicial killings by members of the military in the Meta region, where the U.S. has heavily invested, increased the anxiety of U.S. government officials and the frustration of influential members of Congress. Revealing the dark side of a security policy enthusiastically supported by the U.S. Government because of its many positive results in the fight against the FARC, the scandals are deeply worrying and embarrassing Washington. For much less president Nixon had to resign and for much less the U.S. took away the visa from president Ernesto Samper, whose campaign was partly financed with narco trafficking money. The next president of Colombia will have to make sure not only that false positives and illegal wiretapping and alliances of politicians with illegal armed groups will not be tolerated, but that the cases will not be left with impunity. In these days in Washington different views and opinions are debated on the opportunity to grant to Colombia next August the certification on human rights. At stake is the continued financial support for the so-called consolidation strategy, the updated version of Plan Colombia, which has always met the convinced and almost uncritical support of both the republican as well as the democratic administrations. It is not a secret that nobody in Washington supported and wanted a second reelection of president Uribe. A matter of principle, rather then a statement against Uribe, whose government has found in general wide and bipartisan support. And Washington has looked with sympathy at the present electoral process, at its healthy dynamic and plurality. And certainly the unexpected enthusiasm for Antanas Mockus, the eccentric former mayor of Bogota, has surprised also Washington that thought the victory of Uribe's political heir, Juna Manuel Santos, was a done deal. But Washington has not bend towards either Santos or Mockus. The attention of the United States will certainly increase in the upcoming weeks, as the second round approaches. Sure, in Washington Santos is not only well known, but in general also appreciated. The Obama administration and several members in Congress don't blame him for the false positive. They are aware of his attempts to reform from within the Colombian military and to promote among the ranks a culture and a practice of human rights. They have been always supportive of the military strategy against the FARC and are deeply convinced about the consolidation strategy that was designed under Santos' leadership. If Santos wins, Washington sees it as an opportunity to continue and to strengthen with him and his men a good collaboration. Santos is well known and will not represent any surprise. Antanas Mockus is certainly less known, but the judgment of his mayoralty in Bogota and of Sergio Fajardo in Medellín is very positive in Washington. Washington knows that Mockus will be tough with the FARC and that he will not be shy in using the military when needed. To Washington, moreover, the message of a culture of legality is appealing and it might help lowering the tension that sometimes exists between the administration and Congress on issues related on human rights. This could have positive effects on the approval in 2011 of the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia (stocked in Congress) and an easy approval of the human rights certification. In any case, Washington is aware that a president will be elected who will be a friend of the United States and that Colombia will continue to be a good partner in the region. Either with Santos or Mockus, it will be a fresh start, one that is needed to refresh the political air made heavy by the scandals. The visit of Hillary Clinton to Colombia on June 9, at a very sensitive date, will possibly offer an interesting preview of the road ahead in the dealing with an important ally in the region.

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