Colombia, Locuras, Media

Last action hero— Uribe's prowess on the airwaves

Perusing the Colombian presidential site recently, I happened to stumble upon perhaps the most entertaining and self-aggrandizing highlight reel of Álvaro Uribe to date, donning a gushy tagline, ‘[A] fighter for democracy- 2008: A historic year’.

If the title doesn’t throw you a bone, the Tony Scott-esque, multi-hued quick cuts, and dramatic choir score all but drown you in Colombia’s political meld ’08. The short boasts a theatrical depiction of the year’s crises, to a theme vaguely reminiscent of Man on Fire— Uribe confronts Colombian injustice with a personal fervor, not afraid to rub elbows. Well, almost.

Running a hefty 20+ minutes, the recap of his administration’s advances in its ‘Democratic Security’ agenda marches to an obsessive crescendo rhythm: enter the ominous threat (be it FARC, ponzi schemes, etc.), pause for a reflecting lull, and alas, queue the over-the-top reverence of Uribe’s resolution (think teary Jerry Springer reunion of abandoned orphan siblings).

Apart from its telenovela sappiness, the video provokes its viewer and however awkwardly, highlights just a few reasons Uribe retains an impressive approval rating among Colombians. Not only has the president towed a line of security advances this past year, but he also showcases a cunning ability to leverage the media—both domestically and internationally.

It’s actually quite fascinating to observe the dichotomy of Uribe’s public demeanor in each sphere.

In declarations and interviews to the Colombian populace, he passes as intellectually calculating, authoritative, and rather inflexible to his agenda’s detractors (ie. branding his critics camouflaged communists or guerrilla sympathizers). Although undeniably a master orator, on many occasions he tends to polarize an audience with sharp rhetoric.

Whether it be at President Bush’s side in the Rose Garden, or at the table with Charlie Rose, Uribe has a lightened demeanor all together when addressing the international arena. Yes, iterating the complexities of one’s agenda in a foreign language dulls the scene, but more so, Uribe knows his audience, what he wants, and is quite witty in his varied approach to obtain it. He was an attorney after all.

While Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez often grabs headlines for the audacity of his media stunts and rants on his weekly television program, perhaps Bush, who awarded Uribe the Medal of Freedom this week, now wonders why he hadn’t sought a few media pointers from his more subtle, South American ally.

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Colombia

‘Firm hand, big heart’ really at play for Uribe?

César Carrión – SP

The FARC has been dealt a series of stiff blows in 2008— its founding father forfeits to the abyss, several of its principal commanders are killed, even betrayed, and actionable intelligence flows from a wave of demoralizing desertions. In its wake, president Uribe has refortified his campaign of ‘Democratic Security’, to unprecedented approval ratings among Colombians.

Yet, the rural insurgency slugs onward, low-level and diminished, but at a perpetual buzz. The state’s counterinsurgency campaign has for the time plateaued.

Uribe now faces a tactical crossroad. He’s rolled back force projection of the rebel faction and fractured its operational cohesion. Utilizing his venerable, Mano Firme (Firm Hand) tactics, he has calculatingly diminished the state adversary in both size and capacity, gleaning intelligence and pouncing when it yields actionable targets.

However, the promise always on the horizon, but almost impalpable to the pages of Colombian history— a demobilization of the guerrilla— might just hinge upon the latter part of the president’s catchphrase doctrine, Corazón Grande (Big Heart). Aptly, does the conflict now call for more carrot than stick?

To this end, Uribe reiterated this past week the government’s offer to grant ‘liberty’ to any guerrilla who chooses to abandon the cause and takes with them a hostage to be freed. This serves to undermine discipline through the FARC ranks, appear lenient to the public, and marks potential to draw hostages out by exploiting FARC’s weakest internal links.

In a stump speech from Popayán, Uribe articulated the policy in a rather round-about and ambiguous manner. One is left pondering what exactly the demobilization guarantees the FARC member and what it really means with regard to the judicial review of state crimes— listen below (in Spanish):

[audio:http://web.presidencia.gov.co/banco/2008/diciembre/voces/voz3469.mp3|titles=President Uribe on Demobilization of FARC w/ Hostages]

In summary, Uribe equates this offer to the preconditions of a humanitarian exchange, under which grave crimes against the state cannot be forgiven outright with impunity— they must enter the judicial process for investigation and rendered to due process of the courts. However, in highlighting the case of the recently defected guerrilla, alias ‘Isaza’, Uribe emphasizes an offer of fair treatment, leniency, and generous monetary compensation. Isaza fled a FARC camp with former congressman Oscar Tulio Lizcano and has since been given medical attention and offered asylum in France under the wing of former captive, Ingrid Betancourt.

Uribe’s intended message? Pretty straight forward: flee your dire straits with a hostage and you will be compensated with a potentially respectable living– choose to continue waging the insurgency and you will end up in a body bag.

While I believe this psychological run is a very effective tactic in undermining the FARC, I remain skeptical due to the extremely ambiguous nature of the offer. These guerrillas face a certain death if caught attempting to desert. For a bite at the carrot, the state has to dangle something provocative. Beyond this, if judging by the ugly mess of contemporary paramilitary demobilization, there is much reason for both sides and their respective victims to remain skeptical of guarantees.

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Colombia, History, Inter-American Relations, War on Drugs

Plan Colombia — shock and…flaw?


Photo by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald; U.S. Dept. of Defense

Colombian special forces and intelligence officials pulled off a polished, technically sound, albeit risky rescue mission this past week. Needless to say, the payoff was nothing short of monumental. The operational ruse yielded a swath of the FARC’s most politically significant captives, including three American defense contractors and French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt. Unless one was trekking the Amazon in search of the “lost tribe,” the aftermath played out center stage internationally— a sweeping political victory for President Álvaro Uribe.

For those who follow the Colombian counterinsurgency it should come as no great surprise that U.S. officials have played a deft but discreet role toward this poignant moment, perhaps the crushing blow to a once-formidable FARC. Officials of both countries have made it abundantly clear that Colombian forces planned, commanded, and executed this operation in full force. But, as Juan Forero of The Washington Post outlines in his piece this Wednesday, American assistance was pivotal in its combat support role. Actionable intelligence was exchanged, government consent provided, and U.S. Special Forces operators accompanied reconnaissance units they had been for years training in tracking the hostages’ positions along the Apaporis River of southern Colombia.

The professionalism and ingenuity of the Colombian armed forces and cadre of intelligence officers has truly been showcased this year. With remarkable breakthroughs in its long-winded counterinsurgency, it has now managed to ravage the ranks of the FARC secretariat, largely untouched for 40 plus years.

Riding the congratulatory wave, many officials here in Washington are eager to tout Plan Colombia as a beacon of American foreign aid, its largest package delivered outside of the Middle East. Highlighting the success of such initiatives, Senior Policy Analyst Ray Walser of the Heritage Foundation, asserts:

“The rescue is a powerful indicator that U.S. assistance and support for Colombia’s military through Plan Colombia continues to yield results in the campaign against the narco-terrorists of the FARC, stripping away their leaders and military cohesion, and now their ability to manipulate the headlines through exploitation of the plight of captives.” […]

“As [U.S.] Congress moves to debate continued funding for Plan Colombia, it should consider the rescue of Ms. Betancourt, Mr. Gonsalves, Mr. Howe, and Mr. Stansill as a demonstration of the effectiveness of Colombia’s military forces. Well-trained, professional and under civilian guidance, Colombia’s military is willing to partner with the U.S. to curb the depredations of kidnappers and narco-terrorists. “

While the bolstered state of the Colombian military indeed marks a solid affirmation and can be in part attributed to American assitance, Adam Isacson, an expert on Colombian affairs from the Center for International Policy, points out the following (see link for statistics):

“According to this exercise, we estimate that about 35 percent of U.S. military aid in 2007 went to non-drug missions. The remaining aid – nearly two-thirds – has gone to the drug war, which – as is now general knowledge – has not affected the amount of coca grown, or cocaine produced, in Colombia and the Andes.” (emphasis original to author)

Here marks the fine line Plan Colombia has teetered upon since its induction by President Clinton and Pastrana in 2000. In large part, the comprehensive package had been cloaked as a counternarcotics initiative, partitioning the contribution of U.S. resources from that of domestic counterinsurgency operations. In this respect it has failed rather miserably. While many would argue over the years the two campaigns are indistinguishable, political considerations drove this agenda amid frustrations of field-grade American and Colombian officials. As such, until recently, American policy in Colombia defined Washington’s initiative toward the fabled War on Drugs.
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