New chapter in a dirty war

Lee Sustar looks behind the latest U.S.-backed effort to undermine Venezuela's Hugo Chávez.

THE HEAT has gone out of Colombia's confrontation with neighboring Ecuador and Venezuela--for now.

After a handshake deal at a summit of Latin American leaders, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez pulled his troops back from a possible border confrontation with Colombia. Nevertheless, Colombia's right-wing leader, Álvaro Uribe, remains the U.S. government's close ally in its ongoing effort to destabilize Venezuela.

Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa and Chávez shook hands with Uribe at a summit of Latin American leaders in the Dominican Republic, winding down a crisis that erupted a week earlier when Colombia's national police stormed across the border with Ecuador to kill the number-two leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Colombia's assassination of Raúl Reyes, who was killed along with more than 20 other FARC fighters, was a calculated blow to negotiations with the FARC over the release of hostages held by the rebel group.

The talks were begun last year by Chávez, initially with approval from Uribe, who was under pressure to secure the release of hostages after a series of scandals linked his government to right-wing paramilitaries. But Uribe withdrew from the process months later, accusing Chávez of meddling in Colombia's internal politics. Several hostages were released by the FARC into Venezuelan custody anyway.

What else to read

The Colombia Action Network Web site has up-to-date information on Colombia's civil war, government and right-wing violence, and the struggle for justice. The Latin American Solidarity Network Web site is another useful source.

Forrest Hylton's Evil Hour in Colombia provides a detailed and concise history of the country, with a strong analysis of the forces involved in the current situation.

For an exhaustively documented history of U.S. invasions, wars and covert operations in Latin America, read Jenny Pearce's Under the Eagle: U.S. Intervention in Central America and the Caribbean.

Now, by eliminating Reyes, the FARC's main negotiator for hostage releases, Uribe is hoping to gear up for another round of fighting in Colombia's decades-long civil war. He has the full backing of the U.S., which has long been frustrated by Uribe's past cordial relationship with Chávez.

But while Uribe postured as the defender of Colombia from terrorism, some 200,000 people marched in the capital city of Bogotá against state violence and terror by right-wing paramilitaries, an unprecedented event in a country where opposition is routinely met with violence. The march--part of protests held in every big Colombian city and in Colombian communities worldwide--was an answer to pro-Uribe marches held a month earlier against kidnapping by the FARC.

Adding to Uribe's problems was the fact that almost every Latin American country condemned Colombia's raid as a violation of Ecuador's territorial sovereignty.

Only George Bush seized the moment to praise "Colombia's democracy." He pledged U.S. support against "the continuing assault by narco-terrorists as well as the provocative maneuvers by the regime in Venezuela."

To further please their backers in the U.S., Colombia's armed forces released information from a computer hard drive captured in the border raid that supposedly provided evidence that Chávez had funneled $300 million to the FARC, and that the rebel group was using the funds to develop a radioactive "dirty bomb."

A few reporters, including Juan Forero of the Washington Post and National Public Radio, lapped this up, but unnamed U.S. intelligence officials told ABC News that such reports should be treated with "extreme skepticism."

Colombian government officials also released documents that, they claim, document an e-mail discussion among FARC leaders over how much money they should donate to Rafael Correa's presidential campaign in Ecuador in 2006. Correa denied ever receiving funds from the FARC.

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THE BUSH administration hasn't yet accepted the legitimacy of these documents. But in any case, Washington's endorsement of the Colombian attack on Ecuador's territory is a message to Correa's reformist government that the U.S. will try to undermine his government as well.

The U.S. has been looking for an opportunity to slap down Correa, who since taking office has crossed Washington by forging close ties to Chávez and refusing to renew the lease on the big U.S. air base in the town of Manta when it expires in November 2009.

It's unclear whether U.S. officials had a broader offensive in mind when they gave Colombia the green light to carry out the raid on Ecuador, which was also a symbolic attack on Venezuela as well. With most of Latin America under center-left or left-wing governments, the conservative presidents who run Colombia, Mexico and Peru remain the U.S. government's only major allies in the region.

But even Peru's Alan Garcia and Mexico's Felipe Calderón refused to support Uribe. Washington, desperate to prevent Chávez from using oil revenue to assist in Latin American economic integration outside U.S. control, apparently hoped Colombia's provocations would isolate Chávez. Instead, the U.S. only pushed Latin American leaders further into Chávez's camp.

All this is lost on the U.S. media, which routinely portray Uribe as a democrat and Chávez as a strongman or worse.

But honest observers of the region conclude otherwise. "Colombia presents one of the worst human rights records in the world," wrote José Miguel Vivanco and Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno of Human Rights Watch.

"At nearly 3 million, Colombia's population of internally displaced persons is second only to that of Sudan. Colombia also has the worst record in the world in terms of assassinations of trade unionists, with over 2,500 being killed in the last 20 years--more than 400 during the Uribe government. Journalists and human rights defenders live in fear they will be threatened or killed for simply doing their jobs."

Much of this violence has been carried out by right-wing paramilitaries, often with covert or even open state support. According to the Colombia Support Network, right-wing paramilitaries have killed about 600 people per year between 1982 and 2005.

Uribe attempted to clean up Colombia's human rights record with an amnesty program that allowed paramilitaries to "surrender" to the state. But as last year's revelations showed, paramilitaries continue to function and have influence at the highest levels of government--the figures known in Colombia as "para-politicians."

None of this stopped Washington from bankrolling Colombia's civil war in the name of the "war on drugs."

"During the Clinton administration, Colombia became, outside of Israel and Egypt, the leading recipient of U.S. military aid in the world," Jake Hess wrote last year. "Since 2000, under Plan Colombia, Washington has funded Bogotá to the tune of some $5 billion, about 80 percent of which has been military aid. Overall, in the past decade, two-thirds of all U.S. military and police aid to Latin America has been devoted to Colombia."

While U.S. law enforcement officials claim that the FARC are "narco-terrorists," it is the rightist paramilitaries who are intimately linked to the major drug cartels.

Now comes Plan Colombia II, a package that combines further U.S.-Colombian military ties with a proposed free trade agreement between the U.S. and Colombia.

"With this strategy, they are seeking to privatize, hand over natural resources to multinationals, provide cheap Colombian labor and also legalize the plunder of extensive zones of national territory, where entire populations have been victims of paramilitary vigilante groups that took over their lands," the left-wing party Polo Democrático Alternativo said in a statement issued in December.

Growing opposition to the free trade deal, as well as to Uribe's policies, was the backdrop to the march against paramilitary and state violence on March 6.

"The people want truth, justice and effective reparations for the victims of state violence," protest organizer Iván Cepeda Castro told a reporter for Colombia's Semana magazine. "The demonstrators marched for this, because there is a community that wants the total dismantling of the paramilitaries, and they're against para-politicians."