On Sunday, under the heading “Assault on an Ally,” the Washington Post published an extraordinary editorial assailing Patrick Leahy, Nancy Pelosi, and other Democratic leaders. It appears the Democrats were guilty of expressing concern about human rights abuses in Colombia–the epicenter of blood-spilling and carnage in the Western Hemisphere–and their attempts to link a free-trade agreement with Colombia to a clear undertaking by the Colombian government to address its human rights problems. I oppose the linkage of human rights concerns to a free-trade deal, but I fully embrace the human rights concerns which have been raised. They are not just legitimate, but vital and reflect a rare principled stance on a momentous issue. The Post’s back-handed dismissal of these concerns is unconscionable.
The editorial appears only a short period following a meeting between Colombian president Álvaro Uribe and the editorial board at the Post. And a source within the Post tells me that the editorial that resulted is virtually identical to the talking points that Álvaro Uribe presented to the Post editors, which reflects the serious research effort they put into the piece. Indeed, those talking points are essentially the same that he delivered to a dinner hosted by Florida Republican Mel Martinez and Colorado Democrat Ken Salazar, which were reported in some detail by the McClatchy Newspapers.
A project in Cartagená first brought me into contact with Colombia and its problems. There are few places on earth where a deeply entrenched culture of violence has left such devastation. In large parts of the country normal life is all but impossible. An environment has arisen in which narcotics traffickers and political revolutionaries (and these two categories are hardly mutually exclusive) run rampant.
Álvaro Uribe is not a nasty dictator oblivious to the fate of his people and his country. He has taken some decisive steps to address the spread of violence, and most Colombians repose confidence in him to salvage them in their current dilemma. On the other hand, Uribe has a very worrisome track record of dealing with violent militias–essentially turning a blind eye to them, or even tolerating collaboration between them and state police and military forces. This stretches back to his term of governor of Antioquia state in the nineties. This record has improved somewhat, but the problems seem to continue and his resolve to confront them is subject to serious question.
Colombia is an ally, as the Post notes, and this alliance comes with a foreign assistance bonus of $5 billion since Bush became president. This is reason enough for the Congressional leadership to ask questions about Plan Colombia, and to express concerns about the continuing high level of political violence in the country and the earnestness and effectiveness of Álvaro Uribe’s measures to combat the paramilitary militias. To this day, according to the Colombian Commission of Jurists, paramilitary groups commit between 800 and 900 selective killings per year–a number which has been constant since Álvaro Uribe came to power. Of the various human rights organizations engaged on this issue, only one–Human Rights Watch–should be singled out for the excellence of its work and the penetrating depth of its advocacy. Álvaro Uribe’s attacks on Human Rights Watch and his attempts to dismiss life-and-death issues of this sort as partisan politics are tactics unworthy of a democratic leader.
But indeed, even the pro-Álvaro Uribe press in Colombia is not so dense as the Post. It has broadly recognized that the concerns raised in the United States reflect legitimate concerns and arise from friendship, not hostility towards Colombia. In the words of El Espectador, support for Plan Colombia from the Democratic corner always reflected “political pragmatism,” not conviction, as human rights groups always raised legitimate worry about the efficacy of the military and security aid components of the plan. Yet, the Post would have us believe that by raising concerns about the blood that continues to flow in the streets of Colombia, the Democrats (and indeed not a few Republicans) are engaged in partisan politics–waging a proxy attack on President Bush.
But doesn’t this shoe fit perfectly on another foot? In its unthinking acceptance of the criticism offered by Álvaro Uribe, the Post is a demonstrating not journalism, but political hackery.